I watched very little of it, but I think Ezra Klein’s assessment sums up the opinions of the blogosphere rather tidily:
This is a pretty traditional debate performance for Obama. Strong on substance. Few mistakes. Little in the way of killer instinct or decapitating lines. McCain, by contrast, is offering an uncommonly strong performance powered, as far as I can tell, by his raging contempt for Obama. He won’t look at him. He’s using “what Senator Obama doesn’t understand” the way Joe Biden uses “ladies and gentlemen.” His constant refrain is the places he’s visited, leaders he’s befriended, aging advisers and presidents he’s known. Obama is conveying the fact that he thinks McCain wrong. But McCain is conveying the fact that he thinks Obama an unprepared lightweight. One of these is a stronger claim than the other.
Obama is without question the more appealing fellow on a stage: he has a commanding presence, an engaging smile, a great voice for the thing. He makes things seem more substantive just by talking about them (where the same lines repeated by, say, John Kerry would seem limp and trite). He’s also fantastic when it comes to changing the subject – he can easily glide from a tough topical question to a series of vague and nice sounding policies (hence Lehrer’s frustration at points tonight). But he also has the smart professor’s disease of talking long and being a poor self-editor, thinking that using a string of numbers is an argument, and generally sounding like he loves the way he talks. This makes him ideal for a campus debate, or excellent in a venue where his opponent is restrained (see: Clinton, Hillary), but poor in a situation where the other debater comes to the forum carrying a lead pipe in his craggy old hands.
McCain is used to the dueling of the Senate floor – he’s a poor speaker generally, not an inspirational vocalist, and a reader and a narrator as opposed to an elucidator of things. Where Obama can make any muddle seem appealing, McCain is oftentimes forced to either skip the muddle or get bogged down in it and lose the audience. McCain won very few of the debates during the GOP primary, and when he did win, he often seemed like a mean old man berating students for being idiots. But he does have his moments, and when he gets a good clip going, McCain ceases to seem mean, and instead comes across as a supporting character in a David Mamet screenplay, smiling jubilantly as he brings that pipe down.
In this situation, with this opponent in the arena, McCain seems rejuvenated. Where Obama is young and smart, McCain is old and forceful. Even his smile is wartorn and uneven next to Obama’s gleam and Denzel Washington-like symmetry, but the unevenness gives him a certain grace. McCain is the known quantity on stage, and he has nothing to prove; most of Obama’s slights about him being Bush 3.0 just don’t sell, because his brand is so well-defined already. This gives him a slight advantage, as Klein notes – Obama has to come to these debates to close the deal, to sell himself as the next President, to convince the last waverers not to jump over to the other side in a time of uncertainty. McCain, on the other hand, just needs to convince people that Obama is unready to lead, a gamble in a dangerous time, a guy who’s better suited for the celebrity circuit than the Oval Office.
There’s something oddly amusing about these seeing these two very odd characters go at it. Neither of them really know anything about the biggest issue in this election, the economy – one’s a soldier, one’s a lawyer. McCain is the more emotional of the two, more inclined to act on gut instinct and passion, while under Obama’s soft exterior is a more calculating and capable politician. Four years ago, one never would’ve predicted that either of these men would end up on this stage.
Now we’re stuck with them, and there’s nothing else for it. So let’s hope they’ll still take paper money for popcorn at the next one.