1. Obviously the most interesting debate so far, and John McCain’s best. For long stretches McCain seemed relaxed and comfortable. He shaped the conversation, putting Barack Obama on the defensive. Most importantly, McCain got under Obama’s skin at several points. Those broad Obama smiles are charming, but they break his super-level-headed mystique. If Obama’s job was to be unflappable, he found himself flapped at several points during the night.
2. Best line of the night goes to McCain, a pre-scripted zinger that, for once, McCain delivered without a hitch: “Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush you should have run four years ago. I will take this country in a new direction.” Obama’s response was also good, explaining how McCain had sided with Bush on the major economic issues of the day. But the response won’t get cable news play. The zinger will.
3. Obama gets points for having the courage to actually tell Americans the hard truth about the nation’s financial situation. “We’ve been living beyond our means,” Obama said. “And we are going to have to make some adjustments.” When asked how he would shift his policies to deal with the financial crisis, McCain again talked about his old campaign message–energy independence and federal spending cuts.
4. If you didn’t listen to the words, Obama looked much better than McCain, and this is not just a matter of age, but also disposition. For all of Obama’s smiles, he came across again as the more able debater. McCain has a difficult time concealing his distaste for Obama.
5. Does it matter? Not alone. The hill is steep for McCain. He needs, first and foremost, for the economic anxiety to settle, and for President Bush to stop demonstrating his ineffectiveness with regular attempts to calm the country. McCain needs people to stop freaking out about their 401ks and their job security. I don’t know if a few zingers and Joe the Plumber’s small business problems do that. McCain needed a game changer. He improved his chances tonight, but the game remains the same.