As you can see, I live-blogged this debate, and I surely made some mistakes in grammar and spelling (and even fact). Time permitting, I'll revise this document a tiny bit.
6:00: An empty stage...
6:03: Well, they say that 80 percent of life is just showing up. And after the silliness afflicting Washington and Wall Street this week, I'm amazed that both candidates are on stage. After some strange days, after months and months of endless electioneering, this campaign is finally reaching its culmination: a debate about America's future.
6:03: Moderator Jim Lehrer asks, "where do you stand on the economic recovery plan." Obama speaks first.
6:04: Obama speaks directly into the camera, "$700 billion dollars is potentially a lot of money." Yeah, I'm gonna have to agree with you there.
6:05: Obama adds his note about an economic foundation that led to this current crisis being "supported by Senator McCain." First shiv of the night.
6:07: McCain on the greatest fiscal crisis in our time: "And I've been around a little while."
6:08: Lehrer: "Let's go back to my question..."
6:09: Obama pivots away from the question and returns to the attack, "how is it that we shredded so many regulations."
6:10: McCain adds, "I also warned . . . a lot of us saw this train wreck coming."
6:10: What's with the Eisenhower references?
6:10: McCain notes that Eisenhower wrote a letter of resignation about the failure (were it to happen) of the Normandy landing. I've read that letter. Was it a resignation? Or just an acceptance of blame? I recall the latter. [Here's the document.]
6:12: Lehrer: "Say it directly to him." Nice.
6:13: I get tired of wealthy politicians talking about "folks." Is it just me?
6:13: McCain: "I have a fundamental belief in the goodness and strength of the American worker." Bold, bold talk, you maverick, you.
6:14: McCain refuses (yet, at least) to mount an attack. When asked about fundamental differences between himself and the candidate, he complains again about how "we came to change Washington, and it changed us."
6:15: Again with that line, "I will make them famous."
6:16: McCain ends with an attack on Obama's earmarks. Obama turns on McCain's tax cuts for wealthy Americans.
6:17: Obama promises tax cuts for people trying to "fill up on gas that is killing them."
6:18: McCain on Obama's earmarks: "Maybe to Senator Obama that's not a lot of money." Yuck.
6:19: Obama interrupts, "I don't know where Senator McCain is getting his figures."
6:19: Obama turns to McCain, "You are neglecting people who are really struggling right now."
6:20: McCain responds to Lehrer's invitation to respond to Obama by... explaining the cost of high taxes on American businesses to Lehrer.
6:21: One of McCain's advisors needs to tell the candidate to stop using the phrase "my friends" as a comma.
6:22: Obama reaffirms: "95 percent of you will get a tax cut." For some reason, though, he chooses not to chide McCain on his previous definition of "rich" as making about 5 million dollars.
6:23: Obama talks about "workin.'" Dropping your 'gs doesn't make you down with the folks, senator.
6:23: McCain: "This is a classic example of walking the walk and talking the talk."
6:25: Obama calls McCain on a tax plan that gives oil companies more benefits.
6:25: McCain smiles at Obama as if he's dealing with an errant kindergartener.
6:26: Lehrer: What will you have to give up to pay for the $700 billion plan?
6:27: Obama pivots again, turning to what he wants to do: freedom from middle-east oil and fixing our ailing health care system.
6:28: . . . broadband lines into rural areas...
6:28: Lehrer: What priorities would you adjust, Senator McCain?
6:28: McCain: Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the senate.
6:29: McCain: We need to cut spending. Even defense spending. "I saved the taxpayers $6.8 billion by fighting a contract..."
6:30: Lehrer responds: Neither one of you seem to have made any changes because of the bailout.
6:31: Obama: "John's right. We need to make some cuts."
6:31: Obama: Being "wildly liberal" is mostly opposing George Bush's wrongheaded policies.
6:32: Lehrer: "One of you is going to be president." One gets the sense that he's a little depressed by both choices.
6:33: Obama: A spending freeze is using a "hatchet when you need to be using a scalpel."
6:33: McCain: We need to have off-shore drilling and nuclear power.
6:34: Lehrer is grinding on: Won't this bailout change your presidencies in some way?
6:35: Obama used the "d" word: Depression.
6:36: "McCain: Obama's health care plan amounts to handing health care to the federal government.
6:37: McCain: "I have plans to reduce . . . unnecessary spending." To which Obama notes, "It's your president" who has presided over these budgets.
6:38: McCain returns to the I-am-not-Miss-Congeniality line: an old favorite.
6:39: Lehrer asks about the Lessons of Iraq. McCain proposes that failed strategies lead to failure. Makes sense to me.
6:40: Obama returns to his old-standby. "I opposed the war when it was politically risky to do so."
6:42: Obama: "We took our eye off the ball."
6:43: McCain sticks the blade: Obama was wrong on the surge, despite all evidence to the contrary. He never went to Iraq. He's never had a hearing.
6:43: Unlike some presidential candidates, Obama can say, I'm very proud of my vice presidential running-mate.
6:44: Obama: "John, you like to pretend that the war started in 2007." You were wrong . . . You were wrong . . . You were wrong.
6:45: McClain: "I'm afraid Senator Obama doesn't understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy." Snarl!
6:46: Obama needs to stop staring at the moderator as if to ask, "Are you going to stop this lunatic?"
6:47: Obama: "I absolutely understand the difference between tactics and strategy."
6:48: Obama flexes: "... so we can capture and kill" Osama.
6:49: McCain drips a bit of sarcasm: "I understand why Senator Obama was surprised..."
6:50: Lehrer: "Having resolved Iraq, let's go to Afghanistan."
6:51: Obama on the comparative numbers of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, "And that is a strategic mistake." He's not going to let go on that word.
6:53: McCain is now berating Obama for threatening strikes in Pakistan. Not for launching them, but for threatening them.
6:54: Can you imagine a McCain candidacy without General Petraeus?
6:55: Obama: "We should take 'em out."
6:57: McCain: "I don't think that Senator Obama understands..." Just a tiny bit of condescension here.
6:58: Obama is unwisely allowing McCain to run down a litany of "I have a record" bullet points
6:59: McCain is now on autopilot and Obama is a bystander.
7:00: Oh God. "I've got a bracelet too." Dueling bracelets!
7:01: Obama reminds the audience: The issue is judgment as well as experience.
7:01: McCain is again on the attack: Obama hasn't traveled adequately to Afghanistan.
7:02: McCain: "Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand..."
7:03: Turning to the threat from Iran.
7:03: McCain: Iran is an existential threat to Israel. What would Camus say?
7:04: Why does it seem that "straight talk express" only makes stops in banaltown, clicheville, and obviousland?
7:04: What the hell is a "League of Democracies"?
7:06: Obama does some damage control. "The single thing that has strengthened Iran is the war in Iraq."
7:07: Obama anticipates cooperation with Russia and China. Yeah, that's going to happen.
7:08: Oh no. Here comes the old "without preconditions" line. Ooops - McCain really should avoid trying to pronounce Ahmadinejād.
7:09: Obama: I'll meet with anyone if it'll keep us safe.
7:10: Obama uses McCain's advisor, Henry Kissinger, against him.
7:11: Obama has been reading the paper. North Korea, once proof that we've got a grip on things, proves that just about no one takes the U.S. seriously.
7:12: Obama nails McCain on his forgetting that Spain is both (a) in Europe, not in the Americas and (b) an ally.
7:14: Obama keeps pronouncing the Iranian president's name properly. He's been practicing.
7:15: Again with the "my friends" line.
7:17: Obama sounds pretty darned nuanced in his analysis of the U.S.-Russia relationship.
7:19: McCain, accusing Obama of naïveté: "I looked in Putin's eyes, and I saw three letters: K-G-B."
7:21: McCain is dropping the names! "Watch Ukraine." Geek slogan of the night?
7:21: Once more, Obama largely agrees with McCain.
7:21: McCain has done a good job of clearing away some of the cobwebs that his previous gaffes hung over him.
7:23: Obama: "We cannot drill our way out of the problem." I've got a plan...
7:24: Obama claims the "walk the walk/talk the talk mantle." Look at McCain's record.
7:24: McCain claims that Obama is for nuclear power, but against reprocessing and storing. That was tacky.
7:25: The candidates talk over each other until Obama turns once more to the boss: Jim Lehrer.
7:26: Last question: What are the chances of another 9/11?
7:26: McCain is taking credit for the 9/11 commission.
7:28: Will Obama get a chance to reply?
7:28: "Two minutes, Senator Obama." Back to the threat of suitcase nukes.
7:29: The basic thesis of Obama's campaign: The other guys are keeping their eyes off the ball. Will it work?
7:30: Obama: "We are less respected now . . . We have a lot of work to do in the next administration."
7:30: Obama refers to a shining "beacon" on a hill. I think he's referring to "shining city on a hill."
7:31: McCain's basic thesis tonight: Obama doesn't get it. We can't turn our country over to him.
7:32: Obama on China: The conspicuousness of their presence is only matched by our absence. Nice line.
7:34: McCain: There are some advantages to experience and judgment. Rorrrw!
7:34: McCain: "I know the veterans and I know them well."
7:35: McCain: "I don't need any on-the-job-training. I'm ready to go right now."
7:36: Obama is shifting somewhat awkwardly from his personal narrative to our national exigency.
7:36: For those of you who placed bets on how long it would take for McCain to cite his POW experiences, I'm calling it: 1 hour and 36 minutes.
7:37: Jim Lehrer: "And that ends our debate tonight."
So, who won?
That's a tough question to answer. In these debates, politicians rarely depart from their scripted patter; there's just so little genuine clash of ideas.
Moreover, many observers score victory by recalling the most memorable quip, as if our next president should inspire an "Oh, snap!" to earn our confidence.
Me? I'd prefer to evaluate a debater's broader ability to attack and defend at the level of policy. From that criterion, I'd award more points to Obama. He demonstrated a broader, deeper, and more nuanced understanding of the problems we face.
Still, John McCain was more effective in maintaining the attack on his opponent's comparative experience.
Bottom line: Supporters will find reason to find plenty of good news for their candidates either way.