Photograph by Debs Francisco

GOING INTO LAST Thursday’s vice presidential debate, Republican pundits normally proud to be red were turning blue. Not because of a sudden change of heart, but because GOP supporters were holding their collective breath, hoping Sarah Palin wouldn’t ruin her biggest chance to prove her competence to the country. By Friday morning, many exhaled at least slightly—a testament to Palin’s gaffe-less debate.

Some exhaled more loudly than others. At Jake’s Saloon in Manhattan, they cheered. On Thursday night, New York’s Young Republican Club packed the single-floor brick saloon to watch the debate between Palin and Senator Joe Biden. Perhaps somewhat ironically, organizers hosted the event in the middle of Chelsea, the largest gay neighborhood in New York. Defying the stereotype of homophobic, old rich people, young, New York Republicans swarmed the venue. At 8:45 Jake’s looked something like a Guinness Book of World Records event where 1,000 people try to fill a phone booth.

“There were at least 250 people here, and that’s low-balling it,” NYYRC President Lynn Krogh said after the event. Around 200 people R.S.V.P.’d while numerous others showed up unannounced. By 9:30, bartenders opened the windows so people who couldn’t get in could watch from the sidewalk. They saw Palin, desperately needing a memorable performance, deliver something between good and thank-God-she-didn’t-mess-up.

Palin wasn’t bad on Thursday, but then again she couldn’t do much worse than the interviews she gave Kate Couric the previous weeks where she fumbled for words, rambled and appeared generally incoherent. She couldn’t name a court case besides Roe v. Wade with which she disagrees, couldn’t explain why Alaska’s proximity to Russia gives her valuable foreign policy experience and, perhaps worst, couldn’t name a single newspaper that she reads daily.

But on Thursday evening she went on the attack, using facts (such as that Obama has voted along party lines 96 percent of the time) and a quiver of one-liners (“Say it ain’t so, Joe”). In response, Sen. Biden often smiled and cocked his head, bobbing his shoulders as he chuckled. Supporters at Jake’s, desperately needing something to cheer about, latched on to her slightly disrespectful, down-home, you-betcha approach.

Edgar Grisales is a 39-year-old oil and gas worker from Manhattan, and is not your typical McCain-Palin supporter. “I’m a conservative Democrat,” he said from a crammed corner of the bar. “I’ve never voted Republican and I even campaigned for Kerry last time.” He calls Barack Obama too liberal, especially when it comes to abortion, and also feels Obama doesn’t have the foreign policy experience needed to lead the country. Still, he admits he would have voted for Hilary Clinton: “She’s a Democrat that’s not as far left as Obama and I believe she goes across the aisle.”

But he loves Sarah Palin, too, and, like everyone else I spoke to at Jake’s, defended her previous inept interviews. “She thinks like the American people,” he said. “She needs to be polished in media matters, but she knows how to debate. She’s just new to the game.” Yet it’s that unpolished attitude that he seemed to connect with most. During the debate, he clapped his hands and stomped his foot when Palin shot her witty comebacks. When the debate concluded, he gave his verdict: “Palin obviously won.”

Rachel Gaines agrees. Like Grisales, Gaines isn’t the typical McCain-Palin supporter. “I’m a Jewish fashion designer who’s pro-choice and pro-gay, and I’m a Republican,” she said. Like many Palin supporters, Gaines appreciates Palin’s mom-next-door persona. Still, she recognizes Palin’s faults, admitting, “she’s inexperienced.” Gaines also brushed aside Palin’s previous performances: “She was trying to be something she’s not. The more she’s herself, the clearer it is why McCain picked her.” The debate was, Gaines theorized, a “Couric comeback.”

Missing from the conversation at Jake’s was any talk about Biden’s performance. To be fair, his showing wasn’t memorable either. He answered questions more directly than Palin and resisted the temptation to respond to her snide remarks, but he never hit a home run. He was reserved, collected, and on point, but Palin’s potshots often put him on the defensive.

Palin wasn’t always on point, but she was entertaining. When asked specifically to respond to the accusation that she and McCain don’t support giving bankruptcy courts the ability to readjust the interest rate and principal of mortgages, she answered with, “That is not so, but because that’s just a quick answer, I want to talk about, again, my record on energy versus your ticket’s energy ticket, also.” When Biden responded that the answer to the country’s energy problem is not to “drill, drill, drill,” she smirked and chuckled slightly: “The chant is ‘drill, baby, drill.’ And that’s what we hear all across this country in our rallies because people are so hungry for those domestic sources of energy to be tapped into.”

Once again, Grisales, the oil-worker Democrat stomped and clapped. He turned around and shouted, “I love it!”

Jonathan M. Seidl is Patrol reporter.

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