Down about six points, which is a heck of a lot in Presidential politics, McCain needed to have, if not a devastating victory, at least a strong performance. I think I can safely say that McCain did not have one moment that will move the polls in his direction one iota. What was new were an expensive new idea (buying and renegotiating mortgages) and a lame attack (projector earmark). That's not going to move him up at all.
The highlight of the night for me was Obama's answer on health care. Through a personal story about his dying mother, he demonstrated the monstrous nature of our health care system. Insurance companies have a profit motivation to deny care to people. By making it harder for insurers to deny coverage, Obama's plan will be a huge help to costs.
Obama once again succeeded in looking more presidential. McCain's repeated lame jokes, refusal to answer the question on his priorities as President, and (while it shouldn't matter but it does) shuffling gait on stage weren't exactly distinguished. And I think he also did a better job of reaching toward the center on taxes, health care and energy.
McCain needs a Torn ACL Moment from Obama to have any chance. McCain, while attacking Obama's credibility in potentially effective but predictable and worn-out ways, refused to attack him on Ayers, or anything else that might somehow save him. If he's not going to attack Obama, and if Obama has nothing Thomas Eagleton-level in his past, this thing is over.
ADDENDUM: Watching a discussion on MSNBC with a focus group of undecided voters. Why do we give one shit what these imbeciles think about this election?
ADDENDUM II: OK, that was a little harsh. It's possible that people are undecided because they have been busy with other things and haven't been paying attention yet but are capable of having intelligent reactions to tonight's debate. These are not who they got for this particular focus group, however.
ADDENDUM III: Per fivethirtyeight.com, apparently "cool hand at the tiller", a phrase McCain used twice, when typed into Google results in exactly 2 responses. So not only did he use a ridiculous, non-appealing (cuz only rich old people who own boats know what a tiller is) line, he completely made it up out of the Ether.
ADDENDUM IV: All of these addenda are after I've started reading other people's debate responses.
ADDENDUM V: Brokaw definitely took more control of the evening than he should have. Clearly he read my preview post and decided to abandon the pretense of a town hall.
ADDENDUM VI: A bit more about the "Bomb, Bomb Iran" song. Obama talks about how he is qualified to deal with foreign crises or whatever, and McCain jumps in with some lame line or another. The conflict and overtalking gets the viewer's attention. So, then, Obama hammers him, saying "You're the one who sang "Bomb, Bomb Iran". Just excellent timing, and his strongest attack of the night.
VII: Apparently in his stump speech recently, McCain sets up a parallel between himself and Obama, referring to himself as "this Senator" and Obama as "that". It came off as very awkward and condescending when Obama referred to Obama as "that one" without setting up the parallel. This is not the first time that McCain made this mistake in a debate. In the first debate, when discussing earmarks, he said at the end of his response "I will make them famous". Anyone who's heard McCain talk about earmarks prior to that debate knew what he meant, that he would find congressmen who push for ridiculous earmarks, tell us their names and make them famous. But without the set-up, it comes off as non-sensical. Tonight, he did the same.
VIII: Excellent point by Rachel Maddow: It makes McCain look weak to have his entire campaign focused on attacking Obama on Ayers for the past several days and forseeable future and then not have the guts to do it to his face.