9.51 pm. The big winner is John McCain. Then Clinton who seemed at least awake. Then Obama whose calm was nonetheless trumped by obvious exhaustion. Yes, the Clintons have shredded him. But that's what they know how to do. It's also what the GOP knows how to do. Obama has got to get used to this and find a way to withstand it and fight back without enabling the very cynicism it represents. That's not easy, and we are discovering if he has it in him. Tonight he looked and felt depleted beyond measure. Which is when his supporters have to take the weight.

The loser was ABC News: one of the worst media performances I can remember - petty, shallow, process-obsessed, trivial where substantive, and utterly divorced from the actual issues that Americans want to talk about. At the end of the debate, it appeared that the crowd was actually heckling Gibson. "The crowd is turning on me!" complained Gibson. He has no idea. But he will soon enough.

9.49 pm. The closers: Clinton went into rote mode. They both need a rest. Obama's final words were great: against spin and PR and in favor of an honest conversation at a dire moment in history. It makes you realize that among the forces that have to be defeated if such a conversation is to take place will be the kind of "journalism" we have been forced to endure tonight.

9.44 pm. If you want to let ABC News know how you feel about this "debate", here's the link.

9.38 pm. A reader notes:

You understate how silly the constitutional snippets are. The first snippet, awarding the vice-presidency to the runner-up in electoral votes, was superseded by the Twelfth Amendment!

And Gibson made it the basis for a question if my memory serves!

9.32 pm. No questions on the environment, none on terror, none on interrogation, none on torture, none on education, none on spending, none on healthcare, none on Iran ... but four separate questions in the first hour about a lapel-pin, Bitter-gate, Wright-gate and Ayers. I'm all for keeping candidates on their toes. But this was ridiculous. And now we have affirmative action? Again, it's not illegitimate as such - but the only reason it is asked is to try and trip these people up and make Gibson and Stephanopoulos look smart.

9.28 pm. A reader writes:

Has Obama's message of a new vision of politics ever looked more attractive than after this display?

9.24 pm. Am I the only one to find these Constitution snippets lame beyond belief? Talk about a failure of imagination. We're learning that the networks cannot actually handle these debates any more. Cable did them so much more effectively.

9.20 pm. Obama's convoluted capital gains tax answer was a brutal reminder to folks like me that he is indeed a redistributionist, and someone who seems to see the tax system as a way to decide what people "deserve" to have and keep. Ugh. Of course, Clinton isn't much better, but that Obama answer was dreadful. He's having an awful night; Clinton hasn't helped herself much either. It's a huge night for the Republicans. If McCain went up against either of these two in the form they have shown tonight, he'd win. Obama's performance is the worst in months. But, given the quality of the questions, you can see why. Still ... not good at all.

9.15 pm. The longest section on policy so far, in the age of terror, debt, and torture ... is about the capital gains tax. And Gibson is clearly trying to get both of them to say something that can subsequently be turned into a gaffe or a GOP talking point. There have been almost no clear, substantive policy questions designed to elicit real information.

9.11 pm. Check out the ABC News comments section. The viewers appear mad as hell at this pathetic shell-game. They should be. Money quote:

My pet snake would be a better moderator than the two dopes ABC has supposedly running this debate! After an hour, we get to a legitimate question??!!! HORRIBLE JOB ABC!!! Just plain HORRIBLE!!!!!

9.07 pm. Jonah:

I think a lot of those Republican talking points are valid and legitimate. But if I were a "fighting Dem" who thinks all of these topics are despicable distractions from the "real issues," I would find this debate to be nothing but Republican water-carrying.

I don't think all such questions are irrelevant. But the massive emphasis on them for half of this debate has been staggering. My prediction is that many, many viewers will be furious at ABC News. Even on the substantive issues, which they have finally begin to discuss, the questions are all of the "gotcha" variety. The biggest winner so far is the GOP. The biggest loser: ABC News.

9 pm. Clinton will disappoint her neoconservative supporters by such a strong, unequivocal commitment to withdrawal from Iraq. She is, of course, lying. But she does it so well. They both seem exhausted at this point. But she has the capacity to run on fumes. This is all she lives for. Obama seems off-balance and drained. All I'm learning from this debate so far is that both need a rest and that ABC News is utterly out of touch with their viewers.

8.55 pm. A reader writes:

This debate is beyond disgusting. The triviality of this whole production from the intro segment to the nature of questions is just gross. There's no decency or dignity to any of this. "Clinton versus Obama." Is this a sporting event?

Yes, it is. And a ratings event. Barely journalism. The worst display by the MSM in this campaign so far. It took a network, I guess, to plunge this low.

8.53 pm. They're actually asking a question about the war. Remember that?

8.44 pm. Ambers: "Even Clinton advisers can't believe that ABC asked about wearing the flag on his lapel."

I have to say I am actually shocked at the appallingly poor quality of the questions: the worst of the campaign so far. Pure MSM process bullshit. Again: it's now halfway through and there has not been a single question on the economy, foreign policy, healthcare, terrorism, Iraq or any other actual policy issue in this campaign. How much longer can ABC News avoid the actual policy issues in this election?

8.40 pm. Now, it's flag-pins! I'm just pointing out that we are now almost halfway through this debate and ABC News has not asked a single policy question. It's pure Rove, sustained and hyped and sustained by Stephanopoulos and Gibson. It's what they know; it's easy; and it will generate ratings. It is not journalism.

8.33 pm. So far, neither Gibson nor Stephanopoulos have asked a single policy-related question. They seem utterly uninterested in foreign or domestic policy. After the past eight years, we have had half an hour with nothing but process questions. Gibson and Stephanopoulos are clearly part of the problem in this election and part of what has to be reformed.

8.32 pm. She mentions Hamas! So far, this debate is pure MSM elite issues. And Rove.

8.31 pm. What kind of question asks a candidate to determine another person's patriotism? When that person served his country in Vietnam?

8.27 pm. On Wright, again her shamelessness helps her. His affect is total exhaustion, alas, as if being pummeled with every Rovian tactic has beaten the life out of him. And he is being pummeled by the ABC hosts as well. One reason I like the guy is that he is still human; politics hasn't killed his soul.

8.21 pm. Obama gains a little momentum back, by tackling the bitter issue head-on. By reminding Clinton of her "cookies" gaffe and taking the high road with respect to her on Rovism, Obama also scored. Especially among Democrats who once sided with the Clintons. Her parsing to say she wasn't criticizing him but his marks are belied by her ads which she approved specifically demonizing Obama himself. Those ads are still in constant rotation in Pennsylvania.

8.15 pm. Because she's shameless, she's doing better. The appropriation of small-town life as part of her autobiography was a particularly brilliant touch. She was much subtler than her ads have been, or than she has been when she isn't looking at Obama. And that "Yes, yes, yes," to Obama's capacity to beat McCain was painful.

8.10 pm. That opening silence was priceless. But he seems exhausted. Since she has had her humanity surgically removed, she seems less so.

8.06 pm. Both opening statements total blather. But she looks a little more comfortable.

(Photo: a Clinton supporter at a Bill Clinton event in Pitanning, Pennsylvania. By Jeff Swensen/Getty.)