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A month after Gov. Sarah Palin joined Sen. John McCain’s ticket to a burst of excitement and anticipation among Republicans, she is heading into a critical debate facing challenges from conservatives about her credentials, signs that her popularity is slipping and evidence that Republicans are worried about how much help she will be for McCain in November.

Palin, the vice-presidential nominee, flew to McCain’s home in Sedona, Ariz., on Monday for three days of preparation with a team of aides, a sharp contrast to the less structured preparation that led up to the senator’s first debate.

The amount of time and staff-power being devoted to this suggested concern among McCain’s associates that Palin’s early triumphs — a well-received convention speech and subsequently attracting crowds at appearances — had been overtaken by a series of setbacks, creating higher stakes for her in the debate Thursday with the Democratic nominee for vice president, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.

“I think she has pretty thoroughly — and probably irretrievably — proven that she is not up to the job of being president of the United States,” David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush who is now a conservative columnist, said in an interview. “If she doesn’t perform well, then people see it. And this is a moment of real high anxiety, a little bit like 9/11, when people look to Washington for comfort and leadership and want to know that people in charge know what they are doing.”

Palin, of Alaska, continues to draw large crowds, is helping McCain with fundraising and drawing volunteers, and is drumming up support among base Republican voters who were once skeptical of McCain’s candidacy, party leaders said in interviews. Yet these rough two weeks have led some Republicans to reconsider their initial assessment that she would sharply increase McCain’s appeal among women and independent voters.

Palin’s interview with Katie Couric on CBS News alarmed many Republicans and gave fodder for a devastating parody on “Saturday Night Live.”

“I think the Katie Couric interview shows that she needs to be briefed more on certain aspects,” said Jim Greer, the Republican chairman in Florida. “She continues to be viewed very positively by the base of the party, but she needs to demonstrate that she’s got the knowledge and ability to be president should the need arise.”

Polling suggests that the number of Americans who think she is not fit to be president has increased since her introduction to the country last month. A number of conservative columnists and thinkers have publicly turned against her, or criticized McCain for choosing her, including George Will, David Brooks and Kathleen Parker, who wrote a column entitled “She’s Out of Her League” for the National Review Online.

Frum noted the difficulty that Dan Quayle, who was elected vice president in 1988, had in recovering from an early set of mistakes that led him to be ridiculed as an intellectual lightweight.