So who won? And does it matter? Only up to a point. John Kerry won the first of his debates with George W Bush and won it handsomely. That is to say, he won in conventional terms, demonstrating a keener grasp of the issues and, indeed, the complexities of being President. But in another, perhaps more important, sense Kerry lost. Not because he didn't know what he was talking about but because he failed to project an air of authority or, for that matter, personality that seemed Presidential. He lacked the necessary aura.
I don't know if Obama quite has it yet. That is to say, at its best his style is an old-fashioned one of a type we've not seen in some time: sophisticated, knowledgeable and, yes, professorial. But tonight he was, on balance, clear, poised, professional and in command. In that sense I think he earned pass marks. He looked comfortable. And that's important. One might quibble (I would!) with some of what he said (on spending, on Pakistan etc) but he came across as a man who is not completely unready to be President. The young fella can do the job.
Which means that though you could easily, I think, score the debate a draw on the merits of the arguments, Obama comes out ahead because he didn't make any glaring mistakes and, most importantly, you could quite easily imagine him standing behind a podium in the East Room or the Rose Garden. He wouldn't be obviously out of place.
For his part, McCain did pretty well. I didn't care for his constant repetition of the line that "What Senator Obama doesn't understand..." and some voters may feel this was unecessarily condescending. Equally, his call for a spending freeze on everything except defence and entitlements was a headline-grabbing gimmick that means almost nothing given that these two areas make up most of the federal budget. On the other hand, Obama was predictably woolly on spending. But then that's not a surprise. However, he doesnt have to be brilliant on the economy: he's the opposition, not the incumbent. McCain can't win if the debate and the election is decided on the economy.
Obama probably had the better of the exchanges on Iraq (though McCain scored well on the surge) and, most clearly of all, on Iran. Turning Kissinger against McCain was nice. He's also right to use the "Where's bin Laden" cudgel whenever he can. I thought McCain was more sensible - and more restrained! - on Pakistan, an area where, for all their populist appeal, Obama's statements seem dangerously incendiary to me. They were both awful on Russia.
So while McCain was better and more focused than I had thought he might be, I doubt he did enough. He wasn't a crazy man, but nor did he manage to really knock Obama off his pedestal. His suggestion that he would be ready from day one, unlike his inexperienced and callow opponent, might have worked better if it weren't a strategy - or a tactic! - already employed by Hillary Rodham Clinton. Look where it got her.
McCain landed punches, but for the most part they were jabs, not heavy shots and I don't know how many of them really landed. Obama's shots carried greater weight. In that sense, then, the debate ran contrary to expectations: Obama was the slugger, McCain the artist. And it's always difficult to score those fights. A split decision would be no surprise. But what do I know? On the other hand, the instant focus groups give Obama the win.
But that's just judging the stuff on the merits. And what's the point in that? As I say, the biggest question was whether Obama would seem Presidential material. And on the whole he, unlike John Kerry, did. So advantage BHO.
But, heck, this was just the undercard. We all know that the main event is rumbling along next week. Biden-Palin, baby!