The way I see it, tonight’s slugfest between Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joe Biden will be the most entertaining vice presidential debate in a long, long time.

Both candidates are experts at invoking irrelevant facts to establish their base of knowledge on a certain subject.

Palin infamously tried to bolster her foreign policy credentials by noting Alaska’s proximity to Russia. “They’re our next-door neighbors,” she noted in an interview with ABC News. Never mind, of course, that the respective seats of government for the two polities, Juneau and Moscow, are 4,500 miles apart. Among the foreign capitals closer to the Alaska statehouse: Mexico City, Havana, Tokyo and London.

Biden claims to know intimately the struggles of blue-collar workers thanks to his upbringing in Scranton, Pa. “Everything I know about working hard, I learned growing up in my grandpop’s home in [Scranton],” he said in a campaign commercial. Never mind, of course, that his family left Scranton when he was 10 years old. Surely, he was his second-grade class’ resident authority on labor law issues.

Both fall short of expert status when it comes to touting their bosses’ policy positions.

Palin says the United States should launch cross-border raids into Pakistan to root out terrorists, something that John McCain insists mustn’t be announced beforehand.

Biden told Ohio voters that he and Barack Obama are “not supporting clean coal,” despite the technology being a major plank of the campaign’s energy platform. And he badmouthed the government’s bailout of American International Group while Obama was supporting it.

Both have drawn scorn from disillusioned supporters. On the Republican side, National Review’s Kathleen Parker called on Palin to step down after watching her cringe-inducing interview with CBS News’ Katie Couric last week. On the Democratic side, Joe Biden himself suggested to New Hampshire voters that “[Hillary Clinton] might have been a better pick than me” as vice presidential nominee.

Tonight will also be the most important vice presidential debate in a long, long time.

Faced with a teetering economy and a rising deficit in the polls, McCain’s road to victory in November has become exceedingly formidable. To preserve any chance for a late rally, he undoubtedly needs two things to happen: Congress must pass a bailout bill to reliquidate the credit market and calm the panic on Wall Street, and the selection of Palin as his running mate needs to not blow up in his face.

Time (though hopefully not much) will tell on the first; tonight alone will be dispositive on the latter. Palin’s recent interview with Couric deserved the criticism it has incurred from the likes of Parker and David Brooks. Explaining how a seized-up credit market hurts “Main Street” by stifling consumer lending should not have been overly difficult, yet the Alaska governor was not up to the task. Palin is not and need not be a policy wonk. But she does need to demonstrate a baseline understanding of what has become the most prominent issue in this election.

If the Alaska governor can’t do that tonight, her political capital will shrink to zero — and stay that way until Election Day. Voters won’t give her another chance. For a McCain campaign that has relied so heavily on her charisma and compelling narrative in the last month, this would amount to a death sentence.

In retrospect, the McCain camp could have handled Palin’s exposure much better. That she could change the dynamic of the presidential race in the way she has should have been obvious long ago, especially after it became clear Obama would not select Clinton as his running mate (which is to say, immediately after he locked up the Democratic nomination). McCain chose Palin as his running mate only a little over one month ago. Instead of training her over the summer for her first foray onto the national scene, she’s had to learn as she’s gone along. And not even that, really, considering the campaign’s efforts to shield her from all but a few media interviews.

Making up for lost time, the campaign has sequestered Palin at McCain’s Arizona ranch the last few days to prep for tonight’s debate. In a state that saw an unheralded New York Giants team defeat the theretofore perfect New England Patriots eight months ago, McCain will have to hope some lingering magic has rubbed off.

Of course, low expectations can make for a dangerous opponent. Palin has exceeded them before. And Biden is more than capable of blowing things all by himself (see his bout of spontaneous plagiarism in 1988). It shall be entertaining — and if McCain is to mount a comeback in the polls, a vitally important hour and a half.

Ryan Masse ([email protected]) is a second-year law student.