Let me just post my quick reactions before I find out what everyone else in the world has been saying about this debate for the past 27 hours.
I think for both Obama and McCain, the debates are their best opportunity to refute the negative images that their opponents have attached to them over the past nine months. So Obama had to demonstrate that he’s not just an empty suit, and McCain had to untie Bush and the Republican Party from around his neck. In this respect, I think Obama did fairly well by talking of specific policy proposals and by referring to work he had done in the Senate. McCain was clearly taking every opportunity to distance himself from his party, but the issues where he made the distinction were matters of foreign policy, e.g., supporting Clinton’s war in the Balkans.
Unfortunately for McCain, (a) most voters in this election cycle are going to care more about the economy than on foreign affairs, and (b) on the one foreign-policy issue that people care most about, the Iraq war, more people are likely to agree with Obama than with McCain. (As far as I can recall, McCain dared not claim, during the debate, that invading Iraq was a good idea in the first place. It was all surge, surge, surge.)
If I had to score the debate on points, I would therefore give Obama an edge, but not a decisive victory. If Obama were five points behind in the tracking polls, rather than five points ahead, I would be very very nervous.
As they say, a week is a long time in politics. But we’re running out of weeks.