- He took every opportunity to identify areas where he and John McCain actually agreed on approaches. ("I agree with John..." might have seemed an over-used trope in the first debate. This time, very selectively, it helped in the control-the-center strategy.)
- He took most opportunities to remain calm, to stay above the fray, to seem amused rather than frazzled, not to take personal offense. As mentioned earlier, he was not quite as perfectly self-contained as in earlier performances. But compared with McCain, he was the one -- in a good sense -- who had taken Prozac, while McCain seemed to be in a 'roid rage. And because of this general self-possession -- realizing, for instance, that there was only upside in being gracious about Sarah Palin -- when he decided to bear down, as in the breathtaking "At your running mate's rallies, when someone mentions my name they say 'Terrorist' and 'Kill him,'" it was the more powerful.
If you go down the same list, you can see that McCain did just about the opposite on every one of the counts. His most effective rhetorical line was that if Obama wanted to run against President Bush, he could have done so four years ago. (For that matter, so could McCain.) But that was undercut, according to the logic above, by emphasizing tactics over issues, by emphasizing partisan division over conciliation, by body-language contempt for his opponent, and by a demeanor that reinforced the short-tempered and dyspeptic impression from the previous debates.
Whatever the instant polls said, however you lined up the debating flow, the person who was already ahead had a plan that could gain him more support, and the one who was behind played to the base.
- This format is the winner, compared with all the others we have seen. Forces a kind of personal engagement -- though the fact that this was the third and final round probably made a difference too. Clarifying discussion of actual substance, from health care to abortion, and rawly-honest seeming exchange about the excesses of the campaign.
- Bob Schieffer was a winner, raising provocative issues without being mindlessly horse-race oriented or too obsessed with time. His questions about dirty campaign tactics and about Sarah Palin were exemplary in this regard.
- McCain did not help himself with a number of lapses and minor gaffes, from the nature of Trig Palin's disability to the policy of the DC schools. Nor his Tourette's-like perseveration with the dreaded "overhead projector" in Chicago and hyperbole about Ayers and ACORN, which is allegedly "destroying the fabric of our democracy."
- I love America. In what other country would the finalists for the presidency have the extended "Joe the Plumber" exchanges? On the other hand, I don't want ever to hear about Joe the Plumber again.