The most fair analysis I've seen...
The debate was scheduled to focus entirely on foreign policy and national security, but for obvious reasons moderator Jim Lehrer devoted the first half-hour to the current financial crisis. Polls show Obama with a pretty big lead on economic issues, and yet McCain was able to turn the discussion — ostensibly about the $700 billion bailout proposal — into an extended examination of federal spending and earmarks, two issues about which McCain has strong feelings and a good record. When McCain pointed out that Obama had asked for $932 million in earmarks — “nearly a million dollars a day for every day that he’s been in the United States Senate” — Obama answered weakly that yes, the process has been abused, “which is why I suspended any requests for my home state, whether it was for senior centers or what have you, until we cleaned it up.” Not his best moment.
When the debate came around to the topic of the evening, McCain outshone Obama on topics like Russia and Pakistan while hitting him over and over for his comments, made in earlier Democratic debates, that he would meet Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “without precondition.”
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The bottom line was that Obama did well enough, but McCain did better. A number of post-debate observers suggested that Obama might emerge the winner on these topics because he was able to stand alongside McCain and argue as an equal despite McCain’s greater experience. Maybe viewers will handicap the contest that way, but if they judge it straight, McCain will come out on top.