Note: I actually wrote this without reading or watching any commentary on the debate (yes, not even twitter). I have no idea how it is being spun by either side or what conventional wisdom says about the impact on the race. In other words, this could be entirely off-base, but it's my honest thoughts on what I saw before someone else tells me what I saw.
If only presidential debates were like sporting events. A game has a simple scoring system and when it's over, no one disputes who the winner was. Debates aren't quite so simple.
Success in a debate is determined by performance, but performance within the context of the current state of the race and the expectations for the candidate. Here's how I see the race.
The polls generally show the race tied, with a 2-3% edge to Obama nationally (within the poll's margin of error) and a slightly bigger lead in the electoral college totals. It should not be forgotten that it is truly stunning that the race is this close. After 8 years in the White House and with an extremely unpopular president, a Republican candidate starts at a significant disadvantage. Combine that with the incredible 18 months that Senator Obama has had, the enthusiasm and money he has generated, and the desire for change in the country, and McCain should be trailing by 10 points.
Though the race is close, the momentum is on Obama's side. The economic crisis reinforces his strengths and McCain's weaknesses. Others have said that this is Obama's election to lose and I would agree. I believe that a clear majority of the country wants him to be the next president, but enough have hesitations and see a possible alternative in McCain to keep it close. They're really looking for an excuse to rule out McCain and he almost gave them one this week.
So, the undecided voters tuning in tonight wanted Obama to convince them that he's ready to be president, particularly command-in-chief. They don't want to feel like they're taking a risk by voting for him. McCain, on the other hand, needed to remind people why they were attracted to him in the first place, and reassure them that he's up to the job and as determined to bring about change as he claims.
The Obama campaign had insisted that the first debate be on foreign policy, preferring to finish strong, but that was not without uncertainty. Sometimes the first debate proves to be the most important one, and with the incredible buildup this week, this debate may attract the largest audience of the three.
Under these circumstances, I believe that it was a better evening for McCain. Both candidates accomplished most of what they set out to do and Obama certainly came across as smart, confident and ready to be president. This can only help his numbers.
However, McCain was the more aggressive of the two and managed to score a number of points without coming across as terribly negative. The campaign clearly had developed a theme and he was effective in touching on it again and again, "Senator Obama doesn't understand.." The best lines of argument reinforce perceptions and polls show that the greatest hesitation voters have about Obama is his foreign policy and national security knowledge and experience.
McCain also managed to distance himself effectively from the Bush Administration and Obama failed to make the case by complimenting McCain at times for his independence and also largely agreeing with him on certain issues. I'm sure Obama will be much more successful in this during the debates on domestic issues.
The beginning of the debate focused on the bailout package and the economy. McCain somehow managed to focus the entire segment on earmarks and pork barrel spending, which was a remarkable achievement. This was the one moment where I could imagine Democratic voters missing Senator Clinton. She would not have let McCain get away with that and probably would've scored the soundbite of the debate by pointing out his lack of solutions.
After each debate, the number of undecideds will drop. In this case, I believe that McCain stopped Obama's momentum for now and helped change the story from the past 10 days. The pause will be brief, though, as many more storylines are waiting to be written.