In their only meeting of the fall campaign, Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr. engaged in a polite and spirited debate last night, sparring over taxes, campaign tactics, and the war in Iraq.

The 90-minute session between the major-party vice presidential candidates featured relatively few fireworks, and the heavily scrutinized Palin, on whom the pressure was intense, seemed more in command of the issues than in some recent appearances.

For the most part, the two debaters kept their focuses on the men at the top of the tickets, with Palin targeting Barack Obama and Biden criticizing John McCain. But on occasion, they aimed their oral ammunition at each other.

Palin, in talking about tax policies of the Democratic ticket, referred to comments Biden made last month that it would be "patriotic" for upper-income taxpayers to pay the higher tax rates they did in the 1990s.

"That's not patriotic," the Alaska governor said of the idea. What's patriotic, she said, is "saying: 'Government, you know, you're not always the solution. In fact, too often you're the problem.' "

Biden took a swipe at Palin in going after McCain's health-care plan, which would give families a $5,000 tax credit to help them buy insurance but would make employer-provided health benefits taxable.

"I call that the ultimate bridge to nowhere," said the senator from Delaware, invoking the infamous, pork-barrel project in Alaska that Palin initially supported and then opposed.

The high-stakes event was held at Washington University in St. Louis and moderated by Gwen Ifill of PBS.

Palin, who kept a smile on her face nearly all of the time, often struck a folksy tone, talking about Joe Six-Pack and parents at soccer games, and using such expressions as "darn right," "doggone it" and "you betcha."

Biden spoke in a more traditional style, referring to his opponent as "the governor." He portrayed himself as the legislative friend of the middle class and the McCain-Palin ticket as the embodiment of the Bush administration.

When he did so - trying to tie McCain to the unpopular president and undermine the Republicans' case that they are the ones offering real change - Palin responded with vigor.

"For a ticket that wants to talk about change and look into the future, there's just too much finger-pointing backwards to make us believe that's where you're going," she said. "Change is coming, though. Reform of government is coming."

Biden replied by saying that "past is prologue" and that McCain has shown few substantial differences with Bush's policies. And he responded to her constant references to McCain as a maverick.

"He has not been a maverick in providing health care for people," Biden said. ". . . He has not been a maverick when it comes to education. . . . He has not been a maverick on the war. . . . So maverick he is not on the important, critical issues that affect people at that kitchen table."

As was the case in the presidential debate last Friday, the two candidates last night disagreed vehemently over what to do in Iraq - with Palin saying Obama wanted to put up a "white flag of surrender" and Biden calling McCain the "odd man out" in not wanting to consider the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Said Palin: "It's so obvious that I'm a Washington outsider, and someone just not used to the way you guys operate." Looking at Biden, she continued: "Because you voted for the war. And now you oppose the war. You're one who says, as so many politicians do, 'I was for it before I was against it.' "

In his response, Biden rejected Palin's contention that he had largely backed McCain's approach to Iraq before signing on as Obama's No. 2.

"John McCain's strategy on this war, not just whether to go, has been absolutely wrong from the outset," Biden said.

Interest in the debate was at an extraordinary level, much of it fueled by the public's fascination with Palin, the first-term governor and self-described "hockey mom" who was little-known outside of Alaska until McCain picked her as his running mate five weeks ago.

There has been growing evidence in recent days that Palin, though popular with the GOP base, might not be doing the ticket much good.

Several polls have found that a dwindling percentage of the electorate, 25 percent in a new Associated Press poll, say they think that she has the right experience to step in as president, should that prove necessary.

A series of television interviews, in which she has not always come off as well-informed, seems to have done damage to her image.

Biden, a 36-year veteran of the Senate, also has had his share of missteps, once saying, for instance, that Hillary Rodham Clinton might have been a better running mate for Obama.

The only previous vice presidential debate between a man and a woman - Vice President George H.W. Bush, the Republican, and Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, the Democrat - took place on Oct. 11, 1984, at the long-since demolished Civic Center in Philadelphia.

While that was the most-watched vice presidential debate, at least until last night, it turned out to have little impact on the outcome in November; the GOP ticket, headed by Ronald Reagan, won in a landslide.

Two more debates remain between McCain and Obama.

The next, a town-hall meeting with questions from voters, is scheduled for Tuesday night at Belmont University in Nashville. Their final encounter, which will be devoted to domestic and economic issues, is set for Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Campaign Coverage Inside

Karen Heller: World leader or cheerleader? A12.

Jon Storm: Neither debater fell into the abyss. A12.

McCain campaign closes up shop in Michigan. A13.

EndText

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel at 215-854-2415 or leichel@phillynews.com.