The bar was set as low as a limbo stick for Sarah Palin ahead of last night's vice presidential debate. Even some Republicans feared she would start babbling or draw a blank as she tried to spit out briefing-book data she did not really grasp.

As it turned out, Palin was more than able to clear the expectations hurdle during a 90-minute debate with Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr. She was not as fluent in the details of government policy or foreign relations, but she was forceful - and folksy - as she sought to make a virtue of her inexperience.

"It's so obvious I'm a Washington outsider and someone just not used to the way you guys operate. . . . Americans are craving that straight talk," Palin said, zinging Biden for having voted to authorize the Iraq war he now says was a blunder of epic proportions.

It was a huge test for Palin, coming after disastrous performances in recent interviews with CBS News' Katie Couric, after which even some prominent conservatives said the Alaska governor was not qualified and should leave the ticket.

Biden was almost an afterthought in the highly anticipated clash. But the Delaware senator faced some risk as well, needing to keep his famous loquaciousness under control and to not appear to be battering Palin. He succeeded last night on both counts.

In the Alaska governor's storyline, she is an Everywoman who understands how real people struggle to balance their checkbooks and their family responsibilities with jobs.

"I think we need to bring a little reality from Main Street, Wasilla, to Washington," Palin said, referring to her hometown, where she was mayor before being elected governor in 2006. She prefaced many of her answers to questions with "doggone it" or "darn it."

Palin also made clear she was going to duck moderator Gwen Ifill's questions when they would pull her off the message she was determined to deliver, saying at one point: "I may not answer the questions the way the moderator or you want, but I'm just going to talk . . . to the American people," she said.

Biden was equally forceful in arguing that the nation needed a U-turn from the Bush administration economic polices of tax cuts for the wealthy and intervention abroad, and he choked up a little when talking about his own experience as a single father when his first wife and daughter were killed in a 1972 car crash, and he had to raise his two boys.

"I understand, as well as, with all due respect, the governor or anybody else, what it's like for those people sitting around that kitchen table," said Biden, the running mate of Democrat Barack Obama. "And guess what? They're looking for help. . . . They're not looking for more of the same."

For Palin, the moment was at least superficially like Richard Nixon's famous 1952 Checkers speech, when he preserved his spot on the GOP ticket with Dwight D. Eisenhower while facing allegations of corruption, saying he would keep a dog given as a gift.

Palin has had one of the fastest ascents as well as descents in political memory. Not long ago, Republicans were talking about Palin as a possible future leader of the conservative wing of the GOP - Ronald Reagan in a skirt. Last night, the goal was more modest: to keep her from being a drag on presidential nominee John McCain.

Palin was an instant rock star when McCain plucked her from obscurity five weeks ago. She fired up lukewarm conservatives and energized the GOP for the first time in the general election, polls found, contributing mightily to McCain's post-convention bounce.

"She got him back in the game," pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College had said.

Since then, Palin has had a much rougher go of it. Placed in protective custody by McCain's advisers, she had only limited media exposure and seemed to bungle those interviews, leading some to question whether she had enough gravitas to be the proverbial heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday seemed to indicate Palin was becoming a drag on the top of the ticket. Six in 10 voters surveyed said she was not qualified to be president, and about a third said they were less likely to back McCain because of Palin.

Historically, vice presidential debates, and even the running mates themselves, have had almost zero impact on the election results. But Palin is potentially more consequential than other vice presidential nominees. McCain, at 72, would be the oldest person to become president if he wins, and he has a history of skin cancer.

About half the voters in the Post/ABC poll said they were uncomfortable with McCain's age, and 85 percent said Palin was unqualified to be president if called upon.

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.