If you've never seen a presidential poll prior to last night's debate, you'd still be able to tell that Obama was significantly ahead. He was in his prevent defense, willingly giving up some ground to avoid risking a huge loss.
He seemed to be ok with fighting on McCain's ground, especially on taxes early in the debate. McCain pretty resoundingly trounced Obama early on in the debate. Obama was unwilling to give a full-throated defense of taxing the rich, which makes sense if you're just looking to not piss anyone off. Oddly, however, he didn't do much to tie McCain to Bush on taxes, which is about the easiest issue to do so.
Segregation sucked and everything, but McCain, while discussing John Lewis's George Wallace comments, calling it "the worst chapter in American history" was a bit over the top. Were I an African-American, I'd much rather be in the South in 1956 than 1856. But maybe that's just me
I loved McCain's use of the hatchet/scalpel metaphor to explain his budget freeze: "We need both a hatchet and a scalpel." Watching the debate from the hospital, I was picturing the surgeons on the 5th floor getting started in the OR by jamming a hatchet into someone's gut, then using the scalpel to actually get the appendix.
Obama, later in the debate, came back to McCain's "hatchet" spending freeze when discussing aid for special needs children and their families being an example of an area that needs more funding. Great move to try to break through McCain's ridiculous and hollow budget-buster persona.
Twice during this debate season, once tonight and once at the first debate, McCain derided Obama's insistence that new nuclear power plants be safe, labelling him an "environmental extremist". Really? From last night, "Senator Obama will tell you, as the extreme environmentalists do, that it has to be safe." Who knew Obama was such a pussy
If you wanted to identify the exact moment where McCain ruined any last chance he might have had of winning the election, here it is:
Just a stunning slap at the clear majority of Americans who are pro-choice. It's even a slap at those pro-life people who, ya know, don't hate women.
Obama succeeded on the abortion question by, as he had during much of the debate on cultural issues like vouchers and charter schools, reaching for the center. Instead of staking out a bold and somewhat extreme position as McCain did, he basically said "I'm pro-choice, but I'm not 100% sure I'm right".
So, in the end, while McCain was rhetorically the more successful candidate last night, and "won" the debate, it's an empty victory because Obama prevented a knockout. It would take a huge change, and the only one that seems at all realistic is another terrorist attack on US soil, for McCain to have an chance.