Two caveats: First, because of some incredibly bad transportation luck, I missed the first 17 minutes of the debate, so if there were knock-out blows during those 17 minutes, I missed them. Second, I cheated: I watched very closely the CNN response dial. The dial clearly showed that Obama won. And the dial matched my impressions. Obama stood toe to toe with McCain on foreign policy — McCain was right, and Obama was wrong, but I always put myself in the role of Rip Van Winkle who knows nothng of the past 20 years and thus is totally open to being convinced, and I thought Obama was at LEAST as convincing to the unknowledgeable — and not only stood toe to toe, but seemed far more likeable, far more gracious, and far more forward-looking. McCain showed deep knowledge, but it was all backwards looking. Obama sounded almost as knowledgeable, and far more reasonable in outlook and temperament. McCain missed numerous chances to explain that IF he had been listened to in 2003, we would ALREADY have won in Iraq, and would be thus able to have moved on. Instead, he briefly mentioned that he was right in 2003, but then dropped it, and then kept repeating the same things again and again about the surge.
This last was important. Both men did well on the CNN viewer dials almost throughout. McCain consistently scored probably about a 5.8 or a 6 on a 10-point scale. Obama consistently scored about 6.5 or so (these precise numbers are my visual judgments from watching TV; obviously, they are falsely precise: I don’t have the actual stats.). But toward the end, when McCain changed the subject to RETURN, unbidden, to Iraq and the surge, it was the only time all night where either candidate received EXTENDED response below the midline (5 out of 10). He sounded cranky, off topic, and so repetitive that it had become tiresome.
Obama actually won style points by repeatedly noting topics on which he agreed with McCain or credited him. This is a year when the public is absolutely sick of nastiness and wants evidence that somebody can lower the volume of discord. McCain might have the record of reaching across the aisle, but Obama has the style — and got that point across tonight brilliantly, just by his attitude. Conversely, McCain did well once or twice to say that Obama “just doesn’t understand.” But when he did it a sixth or seventh time, it sounded mean and condescending.
Frankly, I was surprised. Just in the last 12 hours I had begun grudgingly crediting McCain because I thought that his gambit of sticking his nose into the bailout negotiations had actually turned out to be surprisingly helpful, in that it got the House conservatives a hearing at the table in a way they would not have had. I predicted at about 6:30 to a colleague that McCain would find a way to rattle Obama tonight; I had one of my “gut feelings,” like the one I had before the Ryder Cup (correctly in the case of the Cup), that McCain would have a trap for Obama or would goad him into a sound-bite mistake. I was wrong. Overall, despite my criticisms, McCain did okay tonight; I think most AMericans would be at least semi-comfortable with him as president. But McCain did NOT knock Obama off stride and Obama was more likeble and quite sufficiently competent-seeming. Obama started the night ahead in the polls, and I think he extended his advantage in the debate.