As mentioned in a previous post, I missed the first hour of tonight's debate. I caught the final half hour on radio, locked myself in an isolation booth when it ended and watched the repeat on CSPAN. This post is written without any outside influence; I've deliberately avoided any debate reaction or spin so that I can write this up "clean."
The verdict: excuse me if I repeat my take on the previous two debates, but that was roughly a draw. Nothing important changed. No dynamics were shifted. And when the dynamic is so dramatically in favor of one candidate, that candidate is perfectly fine with the status quo.
I was wrong about McCain's strategy. He was tough and threw punches, but they were largely policy-oriented, standard Republican punches. Obama's a big-government liberal, he's inexperienced, he was wrong about The Surge (TM), etc. Nothing terribly innovative there. William Ayers wasn't mentioned. Tony Rezko wasn't mentioned. Jeremiah Wright's name didn't come within a country mile of Belmont University in Nashville. (And by the way, why are these three debates being held in Mississippi and Tennessee, two solid red states, and New York, a solid blue state? Ohio, Florida, Virginia or Pennsylvania don't have colleges to host these things?)
What I didn't take into account was the chilling effect the debate's format would have. It's easy to attack your opponent on the stump. You're speaking to huge crowds of enthusiastic supporters; there's no one to grimace when you tell a "Yo' mama" joke about the other guy. Even a traditional debate features questions from a stoic, stone-faced moderator. When the questions come from Joe Sixpack or Sarah HockeyMom, it's tougher to insult your opponent. You've got to look the questioner in the eye while you attack. The psychological effect is an important one.
There weren't even any moments on par with Obama's "You were wrong" list in the first debate or Joe Biden's emotional speech at the end of the VP debate.
Obama, for his part, is clearly playing a bit of Dean Smith's Four Corners offense. Stay disciplined, don't make mistakes, don't give the other side any ammunition when they've resorted to throwing their guns at you. It's not an inspiring performance, but it might be a winning performance, and right now that's more important.
Obama's goal is to make it obvious that he knows what he's talking about. He wants to show that America has no need to fear the prospect of an Obama Administration. And as I've posted before, it's not a difficult sell right now, given the economic climate and the low opinion most hold of the Republican party.
I'm now off to check out the pundit reaction and see where I'm wrong.
EDIT: And I've already found one thing I forgot to mention in the original write-up, this one brought to mind by the excellent Joan Walsh over at Salon. There was a strange moment when McCain was defending his votes on alternative energy by criticizing an energy bill that was festooned with pork. In doing so, he said, "And you know who voted for it? That one." I thought it was rather bizarrely condescending to refer to Obama like that. Not sure what McCain was thinking about there.