ST. LOUIS The first and only vice presidential debate of the 2008 election season, held Oct. 2 at Washington University in St. Louis, covered domestic topics such as taxes and "gay marriage" as well as foreign issues including Israel and Darfur.
The session, moderated by Gwen Ifill of the "NewsHour" and "Washington Week" on PBS, began with a series of economic questions, but about half an hour into the 90-minute debate, Ifill asked Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the Democratic nominee, whether he supports granting same-sex benefits to couples.
"Absolutely," Biden said. "Do I support granting same-sex benefits? Absolutely positively. Look, in an Obama-Biden administration, there will be absolutely no distinction from a constitutional standpoint or a legal standpoint between a same-sex and a heterosexual couple.
"The fact of the matter is that under the Constitution we should be granted same-sex couples should be able to have visitation rights in the hospitals, joint ownership of property, life insurance policies, etc. That's only fair," Biden added.
Ifill then asked Gov. Sarah Palin if she would support expanding such eligibilities beyond Alaska to the rest of the nation. (In 1998, Alaskans amended their constitution to define marriage between a man and a woman. However, in 2005, Alaska's supreme court ordered that benefits must be paid to the same-sex partners of public employees.)
"Well, not if it goes closer and closer towards redefining the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman," Palin said. "And unfortunately that's sometimes where those steps lead.... I will tell Americans straight up that I don't support defining marriage as anything but between one man and one woman, and I think through nuances we can go round and round about what that actually means. But I'm being as straight up with Americans as I can in my non-support for anything but a traditional definition of marriage."
Ifill asked Biden whether he supports "gay marriage," and he responded, "No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically the decision to be able to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths the determination what you call it."
The discussion then turned to Iraq, with Palin having sent her son to the war zone in September and Biden watching his son leave for duty Oct. 3. Palin said the United States is "getting closer and closer to victory and it would be a travesty if we quit now in Iraq." Biden said he wants to shift responsibility to the Iraqis over the next 16 months and draw down U.S. combat troops.
Regarding Israel, Ifill asked the candidates to cite what the Bush administration has done right or wrong. Palin expressed support for a two-state (Israeli-Palestinian) solution and commended Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for continuing to work toward peace, something she said would be a top agenda item in a McCain-Palin administration.
"Israel is our strongest and best ally in the Middle East," Palin said. "We have got to assure them that we will never allow a second Holocaust, despite, again, warnings from Iran and any other country that would seek to destroy Israel."
Biden said no one in the U.S. Senate has been a better friend to Israel than him, and he would not have joined the ticket if Obama did not share his passion.
"The fact of the matter is, the policy of this administration has been an abject failure," Biden said. "... We will change this policy with thoughtful, real, live diplomacy that understands that you must back Israel in letting them negotiate, support their negotiation, and stand with them, not insist on policies like this administration has."
Ifill asked if the American public "has the stomach" for putting boots on the ground in Darfur.
"I don't have the stomach for genocide when it comes to Darfur," Biden said. "We can now impose a no-fly zone. It's within our capacity. We can lead NATO if we're willing to take a hard stand. We can, I've been in those camps in Chad. I've seen the suffering. Thousands and tens of thousands have died and are dying. We should rally the world to act and demonstrate it by our own movement to provide the helicopters to get the 21,000 forces of the African Union in there now to stop this genocide."
Palin said she also supports the no-fly zone, and she recounted the action she took as governor regarding her state's $40 billion investment fund with ties to Sudan.
"When I and others in the legislature found out we had some millions of dollars in Sudan, we called for divestment through legislation of those dollars to make sure we weren't doing anything that would be seen as condoning the activities there in Darfur," Palin said. "That legislation hasn't passed yet but it needs to because all of us, as individuals and as humanitarians and as elected officials, should do all we can to end those atrocities in that region of the world."
The moderator asked the candidates to tell what they each expect to do as vice president.
"John McCain and I have had good conversations about where I would lead with his agenda," Palin said. "That is energy independence in America and reform of government overall, and then working with families of children with special needs. That's near and dear to my heart."
Biden said he would be the point person for the legislative initiatives in Congress for an Obama administration.
"I would also, when asked if I wanted a portfolio, my response was no. But Barack Obama indicated to me he wanted me with him to help him govern," Biden said. "So every major decision he'll be making, I'll be sitting in the room to give my best advice. He's president, not me. I'll give my best advice."
In her closing statement, Palin said she and McCain are going to fight for "the middle-class, average, everyday American family like mine" and for economic and national security freedoms.
"It was Ronald Reagan who said that freedom is always just one generation away from extinction," Palin said. "We don't pass it to our children in the bloodstream; we have to fight for it and protect it and then hand it to them so that they shall do the same, or we're going to find ourselves spending our sunset years telling our children and our children's children about a time in America, back in the day, when men and women were free."
Biden told the audience that Nov. 4 will mark "the most important election you've ever voted in your entire life," and he said America has been "dug into a very deep hole" during the last eight years.
"We measure progress in America based on whether or not someone can pay their mortgage, whether or not they can send their kid to college, whether or not they're able to, when they send their child, like we have abroad -- or I'm about to, abroad -- and John has as well, I might add -- to fight, that they are the best equipped and they have everything they need," Biden said. "And when they come home, they're guaranteed that they have the best health care and the best education possible. ... That's why Barack Obama and I are running, to re-establish that certitude in our neighborhoods."