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Democrat Joe Biden, left, and Republican Sarah Palin face off during the vice-presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis. ((Tom Gannam/Associated Press))

The highly anticipated U.S. vice-presidential debate ranged from expansive to intimate Thursday night, highlighting the candidates' views on everything from the economy and the war in Iraq to same-sex rights and family values.

Sarah Palin, the Republican governor of Alaska, and Joe Biden, the Democratic senator from Delaware, met for the first time on the debate floor at Washington University in St. Louis.

"Nice to meet you," Palin said as the two shook hands on stage. "Hey, can I call you Joe?"

The kickoff query from moderator Gwen Ifill asked whether current negotiations over a $700-billion US financial bailout package have illuminated the best or the worst side of Washington.

As dictated by a coin toss, Biden answered first by saying the current situation was, more than anything, evidence that the economic policies of last eight years were the worst "we've ever had.

"As a consequence, you see what's happened on Wall Street," Biden said.

Palin adopted her trademark colloquial tone for her first response, suggesting the best barometer of public sentiment on the economy could be found on the sidelines of a children's soccer match.

"Turn to any parent there on the sideline and ask them, 'how are you feeling about the economy?'," Palin said. "And I'll bet you'll hear fear in the parent's voice."

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Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks during the vice-presidential debate.

Palin decried the "greed on Wall Street" and noted Republican presidential candidate John McCain had sounded the alarm years ago about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two now-disgraced mortgage industry giants, but other lawmakers had ignored his warnings.

Biden, 65, blamed the problem on the belief that Wall Street could regulate itself, something he said McCain has supported "across the board."

When given the chance to defend her running mate, Palin said she would prefer to talk directly to the American people about her own track record, describing cuts to personal property, small business inventory and state fuel taxes.

Ratings expected to top presidential faceoff

The 90-minute televised exchange was expected to attract more viewers than last week's presidential faceoff between McCain and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

While 44-year-old Palin was under pressure to present herself as a knowledgeable and articulate speaker, Biden sought to dodge the gaffes he's known for — including a recent statement wrongly citing Frankin D. Roosevelt as president of the U.S. during the stock market crash of 1929.

Palin has taken a public relations beating following recently broadcast interviews in which she offered vague, rambling answers on topics including the U.S. economy and foreign policy. The interviews have been used as fodder for sketches on the comedy show Saturday Night Live.

Both gave confident performances during the only vice-presidential debate of the campaign, which has just over a month left until the Nov. 4 election.

Observers said Palin readily exceeded expectations, while Biden's performance was one of the best of his career.

The Delaware senator, also chairman of the U.S. Senate's foreign relations committee, showed considerable strength on questions about Israel, Iran and Pakistan.

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Democratic vice-presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden speaks during the vice-presidential debate. ((Jeff Roberson/Associated Press))

Despite McCain's focus on Iraq, Biden said Pakistan and Iran posed a greater threat to American security.

"I promise you, if an attack comes in the homeland, it's going to come as our security services have said it will come, from al-Qaeda planning in the hills of Afghanistan and Pakistan," Biden said.

Biden's foreign policy expertise is considered one of the assets he brings to the Democratic ticket. Palin pulled no punches, however, in her criticism of his positions.

She said it was Gen. David Petraeus, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who identified Iraq as the central war on terror — not just McCain.

She slammed Biden for defending Obama's opposition to increased funding for U.S. troops, "especially with your son in the National Guard" and soon headed for Iraq. Palin's own son was recently deployed to Iraq with the Alaska National Guard.

Biden reminded her that McCain had also voted against the funding, and had been "dead wrong on the fundamental issues relating to the conduct of the war."

Palin criticized Obama for his willingness to meet with "dangerous dictators" without establishing preconditions for the talks, although she conceded she agreed with former secretaries of state who have advocated engaging with enemies of the U.S.

Candidates as parents

The debate turned personal and at times emotional when the candidates were asked about their respective shortcomings. Both emphasized their ability to understand the hardships of middle-class family life.

Palin said that as a mother of college-age children, as well as a baby with Down syndrome, she understood the concerns many parents face in the "heartland of America."

Biden said he also empathized with the challenges parents face, invoking the memories of his first wife and daughter, who were killed in a 1972 car crash that also gravely injured his two sons.

"The notion somehow that because I'm a man I don't know what it's like to raise two kids alone, I don't know what it's like to have a child you're not sure is going to make it…," he said, pausing briefly to compose himself.

"I understand. I understand."

On the issue of climate change, Palin said she didn't want to quibble over the causes as she wasn't "one to attribute every activity of man to the changes in the climate." Instead, she said she preferred to focus on solutions that included co-operation with other nations.

"This explains the biggest fundamental difference between" the two campaigns, Biden retorted. "If you don't understand what the cause is, it's virtually impossible to come up with a solution."

Avoided personal jabs

Despite their clear differences, the candidates largely avoided taking jabs at one another, acting instead as proxy fighters in the battle between their respective running mates.

And they did manage to find one issue to agree on: Both Palin and Biden said they do not support gay marriage.

Just the second female vice-presidential candidate from a major party in U.S. history, Palin has been hailed as a maverick politician, a term often associated with McCain, for taking on the political establishment, including members of her own party.

"Maverick he is not on the important, critical issues," Biden said of McCain, describing Obama as the candidate truly committed to change.

At another point in the debate, Palin accused Biden of reciting the past rather than looking to the future.

"Americans are cravin' that straight talk" that McCain offers, she said, using the kind of homespun vernacular that has attracted the support of many Americans during her first month of campaigning.

The Republicans announced Thursday the party had raised a record $66 million US in September, breaking its all-time record.

Palin has faced increasing skepticism over whether she is ready to serve as president should there be cause for her accession.

Just 25 per cent of likely voters thought Palin has the right experience to be president if needed, according to an Associated Press-Gfk poll released Wednesday. That number was down from 41 per cent who expressed confidence in the first-term Alaska governor following her debut national appearance at the GOP convention.

Meanwhile, Obama has reportedly taken a growing lead on his opponent in public opinion surveys taken amidst the financial crisis plaguing Wall Street.

With expectations of the Republican candidate's performance so low, Biden had been warned to guard against belittling Palin to his own advantage. In anticipation of the debate, he reportedly practised with Michigan's governor, Jennifer Granholm.

Palin has not been short of comebacks throughout the campaign, though, and her responses Thursday were seasoned with zingers.

Two more presidential debates are scheduled for Oct. 7 and Oct. 15.

With files from the Canadian and Associated Press