1. McCain did make one major strategic mistake in the debate. Although he may have thought that he was pushing his “change” theme by invoking his status as a “Maverick,” distancing himself from Bush, and talking about earmarks, he dropped it as a framing theme in favor of “experience.” He needs to at least stay competitive as a “change agent” if he wants to win the election. I assume that he’ll return to this frame in later debates, but he needed to do more of it last night.
2. If the polls are still at Obama +5-6 by the next debate, I expect there’s a good likelihood that the current differences in Obama’s and McCain’s tone and presentation will become more acute. Although Democratic partisans want Obama to go more offense, at that point he’s likely to be focused on running out the clock, i.e., reprising his themes and avoiding making any negative news.
3. I’m not convinced that the debates will matter very much this year. If we do see movement in the polls away from Obama by the middle of next week, don’t assume that it had anything to do with the debate. Likewise if his lead continues to expand.