I think Antonio Gonzalez, head of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, was correct when he said on the Tavis Smiley show tonight that while Sen. John McCain scored the most points in tonight’s debate with Sen. Barack Obama, he did not score a knockout blow.
The format of the debate worked much more to McCain’s advantage than the town-hall meeting last week. CBS’s Bob Schieffer, the moderator, was careful to make sure each candidate had their say, and did not become obsessed with timekeeping the way Tom Brokaw did.  (Remarkably, despite the leisurely feel of the debate, it finished almost exactly at the 90-minute point.)  The candidates developed a give-and-take that tended to highlight McCain’s strong points and and point up the fact that Obama, more often than not, sounded scripted.

Several of the commentators I saw tonight stated that McCain was strongest in the first half-hour and I would agree. He offered cohesive arguments for his economic proposals, and made solid criticisms of Obama’s emphasis on increasing taxes on corporations – which, as the Arizona senator noted, will make many of them disinclined to expand personnel, while it is not at all certain that the Obama plan can create a situation where small businesses can create enough jobs to make up for those being lost now.  Obama was on the defensive, more often than not, in his replies.

But when Schieffer raised the question of the tone of the two campaigns, McCain slipped somewhat.  It was probably unwise for him to bring up Rep. John Lewis’ criticism of the atmosphere of his and Gov. Sarah Palin’s recent rallies; Obama promptly pointed out that his campaign had made clear it did not endorse Lewis’ words, and that the civil-rights veteran had admitted that his remarks were the overheated side.  Obama also parried McCain’s reference to Bill Ayers rather expertly.

When the debate went back to domestic issues, McCain scored fairly well on the education side, at the very end, but was a bit weaker defending his healthcare plan.  CNN’s reaction meter, compiling the response of a group of Ohio voters, indicated that in the second half Obama scored strongest in his discussions of healthcare and, somewhat surprisingly, abortion.

CNN’s flash poll showed that those sampled, once again, regarded Obama as the winner of the debate, although McCain scored 31%, considerably better than his showing last week.  It may be that in the next few days, as voters discuss what they saw and heard, McCain can move up two or three points.  But that is not enough to close the gap, and if further bad news on the economic front emerges by the end of the week, there may be yet another downturn for McCain at the polls.