After having watched the first presidential debate on Friday night and then having to full days to think about it, I have to say that from my completely objective perspective that Barack Obama was the clear winner.
Actually, that's not true. I thought (along with tons of pundits) that the debate was pretty even down the line. Neither candidate particularly dominated the debate either with his ideas or his personality. On the one hand, that didn't make for the most dramatic debate in presidential history. On the other hand, it finally provided the kind of substantive look at the candidates that I've been lamenting as missing for months now.
I'm mostly inclined to think that in a foreign policy debate, a tie favors Obama. It was supposed to be John McCain's comfort territory and Obama is supposed to be the new, inexperienced, naive one. The fact that he could hold his own with McCain on the topic of foreign policy indicates that a lot of the weaknesses he's attributed with might not be present after all. I think it was Josh Marshall who wrote that despite McCain saying that Obama "doesn't understand" several times, he sure gave the appearance of knowing what was going on.
My hesitation in saying that Obama won last Friday night is that it's based on an artificially low bar. Unlike Sarah Palin's struggles in interviews, no one seriously expected Obama to make any major mistakes. He's a tremendously intelligent person who's been running for president for over a year now. He's had plenty of time to organize his facts, figures, and arguments. The thinking that he would come off as unprepared was just wishful thinking. The flip side of this is that I would anticipate McCain coming off just as well in the economic debate at the end of this cycle. If we say that the underdog who holds mostly even is the winner in this debate, we have to be prepared to do it in that one too. That may not necessarily be wrong, but I think we should at least try to base our analysis on more than partisan spin and media hype.