I actually enjoyed last night’s debate much more so than the previous three. Part of it could be that I watched with a real-live crowd of college-aged students instead of by myself at home with only my minuscule live-blog audience. But mostly, I think, it was because it was, finally, more of an actual debate and less of a set of parallel talking points. The two actually had to speak to each other and were given sufficient time to articulate a campaign position, criticize the opponent, and then respond directly to that criticism. It made for a much more lively show.

Overall, I thought that both candidates boxed their corner well on the issues. I actually like it when they each go after each other’s health care plan or tax plan, as you can see that there are clear differences between them on key issues.

The best question was when Schieffer asked the obvious: you’ve each called the other nasty names (and proceeded to list them all), will you say that to his face here live on national TV? Like Nate, I think this is where McCain started to lose the contest, however I do think that Obama’s response here was very important in allowing McCain to over-play his hand. After McCain’s missive about not enough town hall meetings and negative advertising, Obama replied:

And there is nothing wrong with us having a vigorous debate like we’re having tonight about health care, about energy policy, about tax policy. That’s the stuff that campaigns should be made of.

The notion, though, that because we’re not doing town hall meetings that justifies some of the ads that have been going up, not just from your own campaign directly, John, but 527s and other organizations that make some pretty tough accusations, well, I don’t mind being attacked for the next three weeks.

What the American people can’t afford, though, is four more years of failed economic policies. And what they deserve over the next four weeks is that we talk about what’s most pressing to them: the economic crisis.

Sen. McCain’s own campaign said publicly last week that, if we keep on talking about the economic crisis, we lose, so we need to change the subject.

And I would love to see the next three weeks devoted to talking about the economy, devoted to talking about health care, devoted to talking about energy, and figuring out how the American people can send their kids to college.

I think this was a very effective way to rise above the attacks, return the focus to “issues” and allowed McCain to make himself look angry.

Down hill from there, according to all the insta-polls, McCain clearly lost.
Now, I’m not totally sold on that–to a certain extent, I think these debates are solidifying existing leanings, and more people lean Obama than McCain, so more will go for Obama’s performance than McCain’s.

But I also think that McCain doomed himself with these debates in that he forgot (or maybe Obama remembered) that “winners” (in the political narrative sense) are determined only about a third by actual substance. People also listen for tone, and watch body language. Obama appears clam, respectful, dignified. McCain is blinking incredibly and making astonishing faces in reaction to Obama’s statements, as if he’s shocked, shocked to hear that Obama differs with him. That image matters, and when you have a split screen, as we did in our venue, that speaks almost louder than the other candidate’s answers.

Game, Set, Match Obama.

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