I write this as the conservative pundit who has been the single harshest critic of the McCain ticket's debate performances, and for that matter of their entire campaign performances. I wrote that McCain lost the first debate. I wrote that Palin lost her debate. I wrote that McCain lost the second debate. I wrote that McCain has mishandled his response to the economic crisis. And I wrote a whole lot of other criticisms of McCain. So this isn't the analysis of a cheerleader, not one bit. But this independent-minded observer thinks that John McCain achieved a solid victory in tonight's debate.
It wasn't a knockout by any means. McCain missed some opportunities. He didn't hit Obama's lack of experience. He didn't hit the divided government issue. He didn't QUITE close the deal entirely on judges or on abortion, although he did well on both. But he won. Oh yes, John McCain won. He was real; Obama was a politician so deliberately unflappable that the unflappability for hte first time looked fake, like a put-on. McCain was on the offense without being offensive; Obama was on the defensive without being entirely convincing. McCain said some memorable things while Obama said nothing memorable. McCain scored big hits on vouchers and on spending and on accountability and on taxes. Obama sounded like a guy getting lost in the details rather than using details to make a clear point.
And McCain's deep love of country showed through, especially in his debate closing statement. Finally, his slip of the lip in calling Obama "Senator Government" was terrific because it was so CLEARLY unintentional (McCain was going to say the word "government" just two words later in the sentence; it was obviously a mistake, but in this case a Freudian slip that made the opponent, not the slip-maker, look bad, because it was so obviously appropriate) and yet such a perfect description of what Obama offers.
Okay, I interrupt this to say that I just watched Frank Luntz' focus group. Luntz said it showed Obama won. I am a huge believer in Luntz' abilities and usually take his word as near-political gospel, but I heard something different from his group. I heard a clear subtext from several of the group (especially the men) that they were coming around to McCain's side but just weren't ready to commit. Their words did not match the simple "up-or-down" conclusion that Luntz asked them for. (In other words, they said they were still undecided, but the actual explanations of their feelings were pro-McCain.)
Anyway, back to the analysis: I thought McCain showed an undeniable command of what he was talking about. It wasn't always eloquent, not by any means, but he NEVER came across as being too old; instead, he came across as wise and feisty.
It's still an uphill battle for McCain, because he didn't land a knockout blow and had only one truly memorable line ("SenatorGovernment"), rather than a Reaganesque line that will be played over and over again for the next 30 years. But McCain started a comeback tonight, and gave him a chance to claw himself back into the match before reaching the finish line. Obama, meanwhile, lost a little bit of his air of invincibility. Short version: McCain won.