McCain and Palin: Polishing Their Buddy Act

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

U.S. Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain and Republican U.S. vice-presidential nominee and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin attend a rally in Lebanon, OH.

It is easy to see why the McCain campaign has decided to keep the woman at the bottom of the ticket on the road with the man at the top.

Barnstorming through battleground states together, John McCain and Sarah Palin have developed a buddy act that brings an energy and focus not present when McCain campaigns alone. Before he added Palin to a ticket encumbered with the now-unpopular Republican brand, McCain's events were sparsely attended and sometimes listless. That has all changed.

McCain's team has the running mates appear together far more often than is the norm, forfeiting the mathematical advantage of covering two states at a time in order to keep them side by side, resulting in seemingly quadruple the effect, excitement and resonance.

At a town hall meeting in Michigan and rallies in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota this week, the pair worked well together, showing off a relaxed rapport and camaraderie — behaving more like a ticket running for re-election than a newly minted duo who barely knew each other a month ago.

While many of McCain's aides have been pleasantly surprised by Palin's powerful impact, they have left nothing to chance in the planning and execution of these joint appearances. Unlike the free-wheeling rallies and town meetings McCain used to hold (with random audience questions, off-the-cuff jokes and a meandering style), the Republicans now stick close to a set script, with a teleprompter, a rehearsed routine, a strict message and a certainty of purpose.

Palin always goes first. The afterglow of her convention star turn might have faded a bit, but for the people who show up at campaign rallies, she generates as much excitement as an incumbent President. She starts casually, talking about sports and her handsome husband (who silently smiles and waves from the wings), and telling hokey jokes about Alaska. She has the ability to size up the crowd and unleash her charm and charisma, without crossing the line into cocky or cloying.

Palin has revised and polished her presentation — she no longer pushes some of the more questionable claims about her record as a mayor and governor, such as alleging a consistent opposition to the Bridge to Nowhere. Instead she speaks generally about her commitment to changing Washington and to reform, the latter of which she says will be one of her major areas of responsibility as Vice President, along with energy policy and children with special needs.

She also hits Barack Obama with the type of barbs she employed at her acceptance speech in St. Paul. Rarely mentioning him by name, and using a tart, unapologetic, scornful tone, she paints him as an ambitious, do-nothing, partisan hack, not worthy of the job to which he aspires.

McCain seems pumped up by the greater enthusiasm and larger crowds Palin has brought into his life and campaign. So far, he does not seem troubled that the energy level falls (or that some head towards the exits) once she has turned the stage over to him. The thumping pop and country tunes that used to seem somewhat discordant at McCain rallies now enhance the animated atmosphere and Americana vibe.

Both McCain and Palin brag about the other one's accomplishments and seem increasingly comfortable engaging in banter. Their crusty warhorse/feisty newcomer interplay, complete with exaggerated facial expressions and playful physicality, have created an unforeseen alchemy (a grander, graver version of Regis and Kelly). The old senator and young governor stay unswervingly on message, delivering both the positive and negative storylines that are key for any successful campaign.

Of course, there is more to a presidential campaign than campaigning. The four debates are coming soon; there are the ubiquitous television commercials; and, as the week's economic maelstrom has reminded everyone, unforeseen news events can intrude on the best laid plans.

But with a tight race likely to be decided by the results in about a half dozen battleground states that will be invaded by the candidates for the next six weeks, a cohesive, vibrant road show can grab headlines and generate real thrills. Whether or not McCain can pull off a victory in November, Sarah Palin at least will have accomplished that.

(See photos of Sarah Palin on the campaign trail)

(See a gallery of campaign gaffes here.)