Who won this one? Well, it depends where you stand, where you think the candidates stand, what they were trying to accomplish and whether you saw the first debate.
The elephant in the room for those of us who follow these things carefully - and for the candidates - was Obama's recent surge in the polls. Obviously that colors everything, in the sense that it creates the sense that McCain needs to slaughter Obama rather than just beat him on points. I think McCain did a better job in this debate than Obama did in several respects (slightly moreso than in the first debate, although much of the debate was almost literally a replay of the first debate) but if you think he needed to flatten Obama and utterly destroy him in a single night, he didn't do that. As in the first debate, both candidates basically did what they wanted to do, but I give the advantage to McCain mainly because he was much more able to throw Obama on the defensive and dominate the body language of the debate.Style
As we have seen before, these two show the hallmarks of their professional training. Obama's a lawyer and an academic, and he prefers to leave no point unrebutted; McCain's a fighter pilot, so he prefers to be aggressive and throw his opponent off rythm. He's clearly the more belligerent debater. Also, McCain showed up looking to debate Obama, because he's running against Obama; Obama showed up looking to debate Bush, because he's running against Bush. Thus, Obama would often launch harsh, negative attacks against Bush and mention McCain as an afterthought, whereas McCain more consistently went directly after Obama's integrity, his accomplishments, and his promises. McCain prowled around the stage and left Obama literally complaining about keeping up with him - not the dynamic you'd expect given their ages - whereas Obama stuck more to the traditional Democratic script in focusing on emoting to the crowd (McCain was more interested in channeling the audience's anger).
(BTW, the townhall debates tend to favor the Democrats, since they tend to involve a lot of people asking for personal government solutions to their problems, although Bush excelled at the town hall in 2004 against Kerry, who was stiffer and less comfortable talking about the social issues that came up. If Palin ever runs at the top of the ticket, though, I could see her doing well in that format. McCain, of course, has traditionally excelled at town halls but in more wide-ranging formats).
Obama looked much more forlorn this time when McCain was talking, much less able to stand at his podium and smile. Undoubtedly that was partly due to the lack of podiums and partly due to the aggressiveness of McCain's early attacks, especially on the Fannie/Freddie stuff (when McCain mentioned cronyism he pointed at Obama). Obama also stammered more, though he's still doing better at this than earlier in the race, not trying to ad lib without a net.
Probably the highlight of the evening was McCain shaking hands with the Chief Petty Officer...you could tell, visibly, that McCain's voice dropped to a different range and he got more comfortable and more serious when talking about national security.
It's hard to add more to the foreign policy side of this debate, which largely and in some cases verbatim repeated the first debate (other than Obama saying "If we could have intervened effectively in the Holocaust, who among us would say that we had a moral obligation not to go in?" - hmmm, maybe we should have sent troops to Europe in the 1940s to stop Hitler...) The big opening Obama created that McCain hit but never quite exploited was the fact that Obama's willing to consider going in to countries with military force for humanitarian purposes, like Clinton or Woodrow Wilson, but he lacks the willingness to stay until the job is done. That is the real lesson of the debate about the surge in Iraq (McCain again successfully called out Obama's inability to admit error on that one, drawing no response). Which of course is why McCain opposed interventions in the first place in places like Lebanon and Somalia where we didn't have the willingness to take sides, stay and fight to the finish.
Other than McCain's new plan to buy up and renegotiate mortgages (which is rather more government than I can ever get comfortable with), probably the weakest point of the night for McCain, and the one where Obama really did give a better answer, was on priorities; even when I backed McCain in 2000, I thought George W. Bush did a better job of realistically setting and ranking priorities. Obama took the Bush path in that sense tonight, and I do tip my hat to him for that. (Although you will note that he basically all but dropped entitlements off the list)
On the Fannie/Freddie issue McCain roared out of the gate well, but he could probably have used to hit that one a second time, since he really does need to hammer home his theme on that point. Unfortunately, that sort of sustained negative assault is hard to carry in the townhall format. McCain also kept up his theme of looking beyond the rhetoric to the record...Obama also never responded to McCain pointing out that Obama's never taken on his own party, since there's nothing he could say.
We did get a number of sharp contrasts tonight. On GSE reform, McCain supported legislation; Obama wrote some letters. McCain sees health care as a responsibility and favors choice and a national market, and wants to decouple health care from employemnt, Obama sees it as a right, prefers state mandates on the contents of plans, and won't answer McCain's questions about the penalties for non-participation. McCain wants a spending freeze and to take a hatchet to the budget; Obama is proposing massive new spending (he claims he'll offset the many billions in new spending with cuts in...oh, nobody really believes that) and prefers a scalpel. I think a lot of voters would like to see somebody take a hatchet to the budget for once. Obama wants to stress energy conservation, McCain more drilling and nuclear. Obama wants a "Volunteer Corps" and WPA-style highway projects as jobs programs.
Obama was clearly hugely relieved that there were no questions about Bill Ayers, as his campaign's panicked tone whenever they deal with the issue suggests concern that he's genuinely vulnerable on that point.
Both gave solid closings, McCain's was better but different.
Naturally, it's always hard to evaluate these things free of your own views as a partisan, and hard as well to avoid dwelling on the additional things that could have been said. Clearly, this was a strong performance by McCain and an OK one by Obama. Probably, given the dynamics of the race, Obama is happier with that outcome.