Jon Cummings: My junior year at college I took a creative writing class in which all the students received copies of each other’s short stories and offered critiques in a roundtable format. Almost all the students were earnest, ambitious types practicing to write the Great American Novel, and most of the mistakes we made were problems of overreach – of attempting to go from zero to William Faulkner in 8 seconds. One young man, however, submitted a sweet little story that seemed to be written for – and by – an eighth grader. Its plot was simplistic, its characters were cute but vapid, its message was utterly immature – yet the whole thing was rendered successfully, as far as it went. My classmates and I sat around the table and had no idea what to say to this guy; we didn’t know for sure whether he’d really tried to write a children’s story, or whether this effort represented the full firing of his intellectual circuitry. So we gingerly danced around our critiques, piling on the patronizing praise for what he was “able to accomplish” with the “type of story he wrote.” And then, after we’d made the author feel like a winner, we dug into the next story with the kind of analytical intensity each of us would want applied to our own work.

That story pretty much sums up my feelings about tonight’s festivities. It’s a 200-word substitute for “Joe Biden was playing chess, and Sarah Palin was playing Candyland.” She announced at the outset that she wouldn’t really be participating in a debate – “I may not answer the questions the way you want me to, or the way the moderator does …” – and she proceeded to instead offer up a manic, 90-minute imitation of Dolly Parton hosting Hee-Haw, replete with winks and nose-scrunches and “darns” and “you betchas” and rambling soliloquies so full of shit the highlights in her hair faded to brown.

Neither Gwen Ifill nor Biden chose at any point to remind Palin that there were actual questions she was supposed to be answering, actual policies she was meant to be discussing. Palin’s answers were brain dumps interspersed with folksy witticisms aimed directly at the type of folks who are predisposed to want a know-nothing hockey mom rather than a dedicated public servant living in the Naval Observatory. Ifill and Biden didn’t seem to know what to make of this adorable bumpkin, so they carried on as though they were still taking part in something serious and Palin was merely the comic relief.

Perhaps Biden knew that his workmanlike effort, rooted in the traditional VP-nominee meme of attacking the top of the opposing ticket, was doomed to pale in comparison to Palin. So he mostly stuck to appearing thoughtful and (vice) presidential, though he occasionally attempted to approximate her Petticoat Junction shtick with references to his own, more urban working-class background.

There’s no doubt Palin’s millions of supporters were eating out of her hand, finding in her the down-home wisdom and heartland values they imagine themselves to have. Meanwhile, millions more of us sat slackjawed on our sofas, astounded that this cartoon character might rise to the nation’s second-highest office after announcing flat-out that she wouldn’t take the debate seriously, wouldn’t submit to any more questioning from the news-media “filter,” wouldn’t – in short – even attempt to clear the lowest qualifying bar for a national politician.

Make no mistake, Palin gave a bravura performance tonight; it’s amazing what she was “able to accomplish” with the “kind of material she had.” But now that we’ve congratulated her for crossing the finish line without falling on her face, can we please go back to focusing on the serious business of (and serious participants in) this campaign? Because Sarah, your 15 minutes are up.

Ted Asredagoo: Remember the hype and excitement surrounding Star Wars, Episode 1? And remember how disappointed you were by the prevalence of Jar Jar Binks, your butt getting sore in the seat, the bad acting, and the like? Well, this debate — while in many ways more substantive than the Obama/McCain debate — used the “Hype 101” model of making something out of very little. We were led to believe that Sarah Palin would implode on screen when trying to answer difficult questions (Damn you, Katie Couric!). We were hoping Joe Biden would fall into the sexism trap where a finger point, a sneer, or remark could be replayed over and over in attack ads and 24-hour cable news. But it never happened. Instead, here’s what we got:

“The ultimate bridge to nowhere.”

“Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq.”

Those were the knockout punches that both campaigns need to feed the noise machine — and we’ll probably see a replay of those lines for the next few weeks. However, for the rest of us who were interested in what both candidates had to say about issues that affect our lives, I’m not sure we got clear answers from either. Palin suffered from an acute case of vomiting stock answers, bumper-sticker slogans, and Reagan-inspired quips about government, taxes, and freedom. Biden suffered from an annoying rash of confusing policy answers, an inability to look at Palin or the camera, and a lack of any sense of compassion while talking about middle-class America’s problems.

I’m not sure anyone but die-hard McCain supporters bought Palin’s line that when McCain said the fundamentals of our economy were strong (as the economy was spiraling downward), he was talking about the strength and resilience of the American worker. Nor was Biden to be believed when he said that he was against gay marriage after he listed all the civil rights he supported for gays. I completely understood what Biden was saying, but he couldn’t articulate it well. What he meant was that when it comes to religious organizations, they have the freedom to marry or not marry whomever they wish. However, when it comes to political equality, the government cannot discriminate on civil rights issues. Palin, on the other hand, tried to paint herself as a tolerant person. But what emerged after all the qualifying remarks is that she does not tolerate gay marriage, and will fight to oppose it (score one for the base).

The one point where Biden should have turned it back on Palin was when she made the “white flag of surrender” remark. Biden was clear on what he meant by a timetable for withdrawal: Shift responsibility for domestic security to the Iraqis over a 16-month period; as that happens, draw down U.S. troops; and have the Iraqis shoulder the cost of the transition by working with the Iraqi government.

Yet, what did Palin say after launching her “surrender monkey” zinger? She went on to list what McCain would accept as a victory in Iraq: A stable civilian government; a domestic security force that can keep the peace; U.S. ground commanders, working with the Iraqi government, reporting to McCain that the government is stable and the Iraqi forces are keeping the peace.

As she finished explaining the McCain plan for victory in Iraq, my 12-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Didn’t she just repeat what Biden said about getting out of Iraq?” Except for the 16-month timeline, both plans are almost identical. Unfortunately, Biden didn’t pick up on that and throw it back at her. Ah well, there’s always plenty of opportunity to do so on the stump.

However, Biden really seemed to get his mojo going when he ripped into McCain’s maverick image: Specifically, how McCain has been no maverick when it comes the lives of middle-class people (i.e., decreasing debt, improving health care or education, ending the war, or, heck, even helping reduce the cost of heating oil).

Palin was on solid ground when she talked about Alaskan oil issues, her family, herself, herself, and herself. She’s clearly comfortable with her identity as a hockey mom, wants to reassure everyone out there that she’s “just like them,” and – “You bet’cha” – is gonna do her best as vice president. Now, whether the image Palin projects is believed by those who aren’t already 150% in the tank for her remains to be seen. My initial reaction is that she didn’t succeed. Nor did Biden convince the small number of undecided voters that an Obama-Biden administration will fundamentally make their lives better — mostly because he couldn’t effectively articulate how.

One thing is certain: As we head into the weekend, and get results on the House vote on the bailout, sentiments like “they hate us for our freedoms,” “a city on a hill,” and “government is the problem” are going to be eclipsed by the big story on everyone’s mind: the economy.

Dw. Dunphy: Subtitle for the evening: “The Truthiness Hurts,” and boy, did it ever. If sight could inflict pain, my clock would be bleeding on the nightstand because I couldn’t wait for this one to be over. In one corner, Joe Biden, average Joe, shopper of Home Depot, eater at local diners. In the other, Sarah Palin a/k/a Tracy Flick, speaking in breathless spirals of talking points but never really saying anything, winking, smirking, reminding all of her hometown status and, occasionally, wielding a competitor’s compliment like a loaded gun.

The pattern set by the first presidential debate remains consistent. Biden clung to dissected policy ideas, sometimes to distraction, often to abject boredom, and more often showing correction as defensiveness. Palin followed McCain’s lead and kept shoving “jes’folks” personality up front, kept kneeling at the altar of the Gipper, and often displayed more snark than I care to stand from an elected official. (Editor’s note: Watch that snark-bashing, buddy. You’re pissing on your bread and butter…) Biden got a couple shots off, too; his inclusion of a “bridge to nowhere” stinger stands out as a notable point, as was his calling out Palin’s constant flagellation of McCain’s maverick appropriation. But where the zingers were tangential to him, they were clearly mainline for her.

What Palin got across was the ability to stand up to the microphone and project. Not that everyone thought she would completely fall apart under the stress and scrutiny, but the lingering belief that she could have was just as damning. If anything, the debate proved she could at least hold the podium and not collapse, the way so many of her recent interviews seemed to indicate that she might. She failed to project an honest sense that she could go off-script yet maintain the through-line of the topic. Mostly, she used Wasilla and Alaska and her husband and kids as deflection, not illustration. These digressions bother me most because we have come to see George W. Bush as a master of the personality sleight-of-hand.

And here’s where I take on a dreaded cliche, the whole heartbeat-away thing. Honestly, I’m not comfortable with either of these vice presidents becoming president in the heat of crisis. While I think Biden is clearly the lesser of the two evils, his conflicted senses of hubris and self-effacement seem terribly at odds with each other, like he could very well be a serious flip-flopper. Palin comes across as someone who has been heavily coached; should she ever assume the presidency, she seems like she would be only too happy to have a Cheney of her own. In my opinion, that ought never happen in American politics again. She keeps telling us she has executive experience, but then again, she’s been telling us a lot in her Fibonacci spirals of logic, always ending in the war-and-oil groove.

Mostly – and this sounds horrible but it is true, and I think most of you readers might agree – I was hoping this debate would be funnier. That these two held forth without imploding into Dadaesque parapses of insane improvisation is rather disappointing. Good for America that they’re able to present the illusion of readiness and competence, but I could have watched Forgetting Sarah Marshall in that span of time and felt a lot more satisfied.

Oh well, on to Tuesday and the next round with the presidential candidates. Get your B.S. detectors all charged up, and we’ll see you then.