When one evaluates a debate among candidates for high office, a number of criteria must be established. The first has to do with the actual conduct of the debate — whether there was a decided advantage for one or the other on content and/or style, or whether a defining phrase clearly favoured one over the other. In other words, was there a knockout blow?
The second criterion has to do with expectations, which is why so many handlers tend to lower them for their candidates. Was the acknowledged better debater up to form? Did he underperform? Did he manage to surpass expectations?
The final criteria is about meeting goals, like improving his standing with needed voter blocs, reducing negative perceptions about his candidacy, or enhancing his stature and position with the voter.
No knockout blows were delivered in this debate, and there were no wide discrepancies on content and style. As expected, McCain showed great knowledge on foreign policy matters, but Obama held his own and was able to demonstrate a level of poise and aplomb that usually comes from many more years of experience.
As for expectations, both candidates performed better than I have seen them perform since the beginning of the primary season. Obama was less cerebral and more precise than usual, while McCain appeared more at ease in a forum that wasn’t expected to favour him. Though the candidates stayed close to their script, they did provide an at times entertaining and spirited exchange.
The real difference occurred with respect to goals. McCain needed a game changer to stall Obama’s momentum. He needed to demonstrate to voters that he is the better choice by outclassing his opponent in knowledge and stature, especially with respect to foreign policy and national security. He did not get it done.
Obama, on the other hand, needed to look presidential, avoid appearing risky, and establish a comfort level with voters. This is the only way he will be able to eliminate the lingering doubts about his candidacy. In this regard, I believe he had a good night.
For many observers who listened and watched the debate, it may have appreared like a draw. And, at least on the surface, I would agree. But with recent trends favouring the Democratic challenger, a draw means Obama won the night.