I think McCain clearly won this debate, chiefly because he came across as advertised–extremely comfortable and experienced on issues of defense and foreign policy. McCain speaks here like a man who knows his own mind, who’s command of the game is so taken-for-granted that he can focus on aggressively on playing it to win. Obama also came off as advertised–as a bright and earnest guy, but still in the process of coming to grips with these questions.
In the end, however, I think debate gamesmanship is secondary. The real question is how Americans feel right now about foreign and defense policy. I’m betting they’re still traditional and tough-minded enough to throw in with McCain on these issues. If the surge had failed, or never been tried, we might have been up for a sea-change on foreign and defense policy. Things did seem to be trending that way for a time. Fortunately, the war turned around, and Americans still want to win.
There remains the possibility that persisting Iraq fatigue has moved the country leftward enough to feel comfortable with Obama on the issues where these candidates differ. I doubt it, but we’ll see. In any case, I think substantive differences count for more tonight than debate points. And on both debate points and on where this country’s gut is right now, I think McCain has done quite well.