AFTER THE DUST SETTLES…. After having a chance to reflect for a while on the vice presidential debate, I’m still stuck with the same impressions I had last night. Joe Biden was sharp, knowledgeable, and ready for national office. Sarah Palin was folksy and strikingly out of her depth.

But let’s step back and consider what the point is of a vice presidential debate in the first place. The principal purpose, I suppose, is for the running mates to demonstrate to voters that they’re prepared for the job. By this measurement, it wasn’t close. Biden is obviously presidential caliber, while Palin might be ready for some job — used-car salesperson, perhaps — but clearly not this job.

But the other reason to have this debate at all is for the V.P. nominees to talk about the candidates at the top of the ticket. And this is where Biden was especially effective. Some of the most memorable moments of the evening, at least for me, were when Biden took John McCain apart.

At one point, Palin urged Biden not to look back and compare McCain’s record to Bush’s. Biden responded:

“Look, past is prologue, Gwen. The issue is, how different is John McCain’s policy going to be than George Bush’s? I haven’t heard anything yet. I haven’t heard how his policy is going to be different on Iran than George Bush’s. I haven’t heard how his policy is going to be different with Israel than George Bush’s. I haven’t heard how his policy in Afghanistan is going to be different than George Bush’s. I haven’t heard how his policy in Pakistan is going to be different than George Bush’s.”

Soon after, Palin said Obama/Biden policies would be bad for the economy. Biden, again, pounced:

“Look, all you have to do is go down Union Street with me in Wilmington or go to Katie’s Restaurant or walk into Home Depot with me where I spend a lot of time and you ask anybody in there whether or not the economic and foreign policy of this administration has made them better off in the last eight years. And then ask them whether there’s a single major initiative that John McCain differs with the president on. On taxes, on Iraq, on Afghanistan, on the whole question of how to help education, on the dealing with health care…. The wealthy have done very well. Corporate America has been rewarded. It’s time we change it. Barack Obama will change it.”

And soon after that, Palin once again described McCain as a “maverick” — she used the word 7 gajillion times; I counted — and Biden hit it out of the park.

“Let’s talk about the maverick John McCain is. And, again, I love him. He’s been a maverick on some issues, but he has been no maverick on the things that matter to people’s lives. He voted four out of five times for George Bush’s budget, which put us a half a trillion dollars in debt this year and over $3 trillion in debt since he’s got there. He has not been a maverick in providing health care for people. He has voted against — he voted including another 3.6 million children in coverage of the existing health care plan, when he voted in the United States Senate. He’s not been a maverick when it comes to education. He has not supported tax cuts and significant changes for people being able to send their kids to college. He’s not been a maverick on the war. He’s not been a maverick on virtually anything that genuinely affects the things that people really talk about around their kitchen table…. He voted against even providing for what they call LIHEAP, for assistance to people, with oil prices going through the roof in the winter. So maverick he is not on the important, critical issues that affect people at that kitchen table.”

The McCain campaign needed Palin to come out and speak in complete sentences. She did. They needed her not to humiliate herself as she did with Katie Couric. She did that, too. But given the recent trajectory of the campaign, the campaign also needed this debate to help turn things around for John McCain. And that clearly didn’t happen — Biden wouldn’t let it happen.

I get the sense the entire Republican world exhaled last night, around 10:32 p.m. eastern, when they realized Palin had gone 90 minutes without making an obvious fool out of herself. But their relief should be temporary — the race looks no different now than it did 24 hours ago. Republicans were losing then, and they’re losing now.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.