Pundits: No clear-cut winner

CNN’s Anderson Cooper, shortly after the first presidential debate said, “there was not a sense the world had changed.”

That’s a pretty high bar to set for a debate. But at the same time, with this week’s headlines of impending financial collapse and a suspended presidential campaign—not to mention doubts that the debate would actually take place—perhaps only a world-changing showdown could have lived up to the hype.

For hours beforehand, pundits tried to get inside John McCain’s head. There were questions about his “temperament,” his “risk-taking”, and—as the Obama campaign might say—his “erratic” ways.

But when the “two prizefighters,” as NBC’s David Gregory called them, exited the stage, the attention shifted away from the chaotic past 48 hours and toward the previous 90 minutes.

Fox’s Brit Hume called it a “spirited debate,” but like other commentators, agreed that there was no standout moment that will be replayed on an endless loop.

“There was not in this debate, it didn’t seem to this observer anyway, one of the moment—that will be the sound bite of the night, that you know when you hear it—oh boy, that’s going to be the one on the morning programs, that’s going to be the one everybody’s talking about,” Hume said.

Moderator Jim Lehrer didn't grandstand like other high-profile journalists during the primaries, and engaged the candidates, courteously pushing them to provide more specifics on what they would actually do in office. There weren't any 'gotcha' questions to trip anyone up, or cause a major gaffe.

As expected, both campaigns claimed victory, and spin room surrogates appeared on screen to make their candidates’ case. Joe Biden appeared on all three cable networks, while Sarah Palin didn’t—leading CNN's Wolf Blitzer to bring up her absence several times.

Of course, some partisans were quick to offer conclusive opinions. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann said that there was no doubt Obama won, while Fox’s Bill Kristol contended McCain won. No surprises there.

“There will be a deal this weekend, and he will be vindicated," Kristol said.

But for the most part, there was no knock-out punch to easily give the victory to either Obama or McCain.

“I would have a hard time saying one person won this one,” said CNN’s David Gergen.

So without picking a clear-cut winner, many pundits analyzed the back-and-forth on stage, and who scored points here and there.

CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin spoke about Obama's frequent practice of saying that “McCain is right,” with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews dubbing it an “amen chorus.”

As for McCain's approach to his Democratic competitor, Matthews said that McCain “not once, in an hour-and-a-half, did he look at his opponent.” Later, Matthews referred to McCain several times as "troll-like," and asked his guests and Ole Miss students outside about that description.

Some pundits questioned whether Obama appeared tough enough, or missed opportunities on the economy—especially with the perception in the media that McCain was against the ropes going into the debate.

“John McCain could have lost this race tonight,” said CNN Republican strategist Alex Castellanos. “I’d say a tie is a good thing for the guy who was behind.”

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