Most people watch a debate hoping not merely to see our side "win," but also hoping to make mincemeat of the opposition. We want the other side to get so flustered that s/he stammers and gags and stumbles under the weight of one crushing blow after another.
For Democrats especially, the amount of pent-up frustration after seven years of enduring Bush's offenses and idiocies makes us crave nothing less than an all-out slaughter.
But I think Obama's people see things differently -- and apart from the few moments where Obama showed he could duke (and dish) it out with the best of them (as in his "the war started in 2003" segement), his campaign did not see it as their mission to stomp McCain to a pulp tonight.
Instead, they grasped that Obama has been steadily pulling upward in the polls... while McCain has been acting erratically, even desperately. And they tailored their debate strategy accordingly.
More on that after the jump...
Obama's job, then, was not to throw uppercuts and roundhouse rights, but rather to show that he is steady, knowledgeable, unflappable, firm, generous, thoughtful. His job was to reassure another (relatively small) segment of the electorate to put aside any remaining doubts about his abilities and fitness -- and then to try a new approach and new direction after two terms of Republician misrule.
If Obama inches up another 3-4% in the polls, the electoral map becomes a landslide. He did not need to provide catharthis for the entire Bush presidency in one single debate. He needed to lock in his growing lead and make another incremental gain.
I think he accomplished that... He may have even done better than that, if the few credible focus groups and polls I've seen so far are to be believed. But he didn't need to do more than silence enough doubters to put the race all but out of McCain's reach.
Besides, in reality the knockout blow almost never lands -- and those that try for them often take themselves down rather than their target. Pundits will do their best to turn some minor zingers into major game-changers, because that sells more papers and grabs more eyeballs. And yes, Obama drew blood several times, as with his formulation about the war starting in 2003, not 2007, or with his reference to McCain's "bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran" gaffe.
But it is the gestalt of the event, not any particular line, that viewers retain. So I was glad to see Obama prevail not only on points, but more importantly in the overall impression left as the specifics quickly evaporate from memory.
Expect McCain now to get far nastier in his ads and his attacks, as his advisors will counsel that the only way to close the gap back up is through far more negative campaigning. And expect to see the Reverend Wright endlessly again in the final stretch. By then, I think it won't matter -- Obama will be far out of the Rovians' reach.