This was John McCain's strongest debate so far. He was aggressive, he got his points in and he explicitly and convincingly distanced himself from President George W. Bush. It was also the most substantive and illuminating debate of the four - Bob Schieffer did better than all the other moderators put together. The side-by-side format helped. It was good to see direct engagement.
McCain made Joe the Plumber - actually Joe Wurzelbacher - the most famous voter in America. That's good for the Arizona - it will mean there will be lots of talk about Obama wanting to "spread" - or redistribute - wealth. To a lot of Americans, that's socialism. McCain was particularly strong at the beginning - Obama closed well.
I'm not sure how well the Ayers and Acorn stuff worked though - McCain seemed to get angry and emotional while Obama kept his cool. The split screen may have worked against Obama (I watched the debate on CNN, which used split screen more often than other cable channels and networks).
On the other hand, Obama - who was often long-winded and professorial - looked a tad condescending and mocking at times. A big caveat: this may be one of those debates where the initial feeling was that McCain had done well but that could fade.
So what are the major points to take away from this?
1. If you read a transcript, McCain was the clear winner. But there were no hugely dramatic moments, no major slips by Obama (though he did promise to enforce "unfair trade" at one point), nothing to change the dynamic of this race. NAd debates are about more than transcripts - they're also visual events.
2. Best line of the night: ""Senator Obama I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush you should have run four years ago." But was it a couple of months too late?