Intelligent, knowledgeable, and an earnest explainer, as always, but to no real effect. Though he conveyed a general sense of his agenda, he did so without bothering to fight ardently for his case.
Appeared tired and irritable, and bore the ills of a poor make-up job. While initially seeming distracted and even resentful of the evening's activity, he eventually realized he needed to step up his game, and became more conversational and involved. Recovered after the rocky start to avoid anything transformative for his opponent.
Offense:Rarely went after McCain, and when he did, was indirect and often too vague.
Unrattled by frequent McCain attacks, but a little peevish in addressing the allegations tossed his way. He strained to defend his positions on health care and taxes and failed to express a fully-formed alternative explanation. Relying on polling data to excuse himself for the campaign's negative tone and implicitly for going back on his word on campaign financing, he seemed indifferent towards the recent mutual harsh words, placing the blame firmly with his opposition.
During the first half of the debate, the Democratic nominee too often displayed his worst traits—petty, aloof, imperious—and behaved as if he had some place better to be, although he became warmer and more engaged as the evening progressed. He did not seem to have an explicit strategy, answering the questions piecemeal as they came his way, without driving a message or even a theme. He retained his consistently unflappable air, and had a few fine moments. If he was sitting on his lead, it worked—but perhaps at the expense of relinquishing part of it.
Overall grade: B
For forty minutes, he was cogent, friendly, and yet sharp when he needed to be. Well aware of the stakes and his underdog circumstance, he worked hard to hit all his marks. Showed genuine empathy about the ramifications of the battered economy, small business struggles, and even childhood obesity. But he lost points during the second half of the session by falling back on the awkward, cranky tics that have marred his earlier performances.
Hit Obama again and again, almost always with authority and command rather than desperation. Repeatedly steered the evening's discussion to a plumber named Joe who talked about taxes with Obama during a recent campaign event—and scored points. He deftly used opposition research on Obama's record, and did so far more effectively than in the first two debates. Skillfully attacked his opponent for not keeping his word on campaign financing and for refusing to hold joint town meetings. At times, though, he became too agitated and lost focus, particularly when he raised the Ayers matter—still a negative bridge too far for many.
During the first half of the debate, the Republican nominee showed off the best of himself—dedicated, sincere, patriotic, cheery, earnest, commanding—all without seeming old or anxious. He even scored some points in the "change" category, against the candidate who has owned the theme. He was also clear, upbeat, and totally on message. To his detriment, however, he became more aggressive and distracted during the second half, and perhaps lost a chance for the truly dramatic event he needs to change the game. Still, if a silent majority of persuadable voters watched the debate, they saw why McCain's advisers have faith in him and still believe he can win this race.
Overall Grade: A-