Rhetorically, this was the best performance by both Obama and McCain. Certainly, Bob Schieffer was the best of the three moderators. He actually let the two of them debate. Congrats, Bob.
In the first debate, I scored Obama at about an A- and McCain at a B. The second debate was roughly the same, but a little less for both, and McCain looked worse and worse the more it got hashed over. In this debate, I was all set to bump each up a half-grade, but they both fell down in key areas. Both did really well repeating their talking points, and both got off a few zingers. Both did well responding to each other, though they did less well answering specifics. Obama did better in that regard, but mostly because McCain sometimes avoided the subjects altogether.
Barack Obama didn't strike when he could have. It's one thing to respond to all the attack ads and lying about Ayers and ACORN, it's another to simply repeat the mud slinging without bringing up McCain's associations (including his support of ACORN and his palling around with people who helped out Saddam Hussein) and another not to bring up Sarah Palin's "unethical and illegal" behavior. He could have, gently, turned the topic on its head, and he didn't.
But there's no question: Overall, on the facts and in demeanor, Obama was really good: A-
Meanwhile, McCain was merely good. He was politically correct on repeated his talking points a lot even when they were completely wrong (such as his repeating lies about Obama's tax policies and his own energy policy). I will, grudgingly, give him a pass on supporting Sarah Palin. She's been an utter disaster for all Republicans and a shameful candidate. A hateful candidate. He came down on Rep. Lewis and didn't "repudiate" any of Palin's bald faced lies.
More, though, he repeated a key right-wing buzzword: "Pro-abortion". As Obama correctly pointed out, no one is actually pro-abortion, and there is a lot of political middle ground. McCain pandered to the extremists in his party with a position he doesn't -- or didn't until recently -- support. One of the reasons I liked McCain, back when, was that he took a reasonable position on this divisive issue. He threw that all away today. He's appealing to the sphincter conservative "base" that doesn't believe in America.
In terms of the debate, I'll have to give McCain no higher than a B, and might be a B- depending on whether I feel he was "aggressive" or "cantankerous".
Hang on, the pundits are weighing in...