Town halls meetings under the watchful eye of a moderator are great for one thing - they demand a little bit more substance from candidates than normal because they have been warned before hand that they will not be rewarded by applause but (enforced) silence. So there were a whole lot more frowns than there were any hoots in tonight's debate. Because both candidates were being closely watched, there were relatively less attacks, and more I-feel-your-pains. Both still pandered - neither would admit that the economy was in for it for a while before it would get better.
While Obama moved around less and looked straight into the eye of the questioner more often and for longer, McCain circled and wandered around the audience. Worse still, he seemed to lose his cool when Obama asked for follow-up time, and McCain protested only to testily quip "fine by me, fine by me." He needs to stop using "my friends" at every turn, because he does not pull it off the way Reagan would have or George W Bush does. Instead, McCain often sounded inauthentic and uneasy, even presumptuous. Obama on the other hand was warm, quick on his feet, and was particularly good when pivoting on the final question about what didn't he know to talk about uncertainty and leadership.
This was a must-win night for McCain, but he failed to deliver a breakthrough. He did have a new plan for the Secretary of Treasury to buy out bad mortgages, but it's unlikely to move minds now that the broad thrust of his economic policies are well known. Even Frank Luntz over at Foxnews found that more participants responded to Obama than to McCain, as did Soledad O'Brien over at CNN.
I don't necessarily think that Obama did that much better than McCain. The fact that elite opinions are starting to line up in forecasting an Obama victory suggest a momentum that is now indisputably in full swing. For better or for worse, democracy must live with the fundamentals of mass psychology - everyone wants to be on the winning team and herd mentality reinforces belief systems. Maybe there'll be an October surprise, but I suspect that the current economic crisis constitutes an October tragedy that far overshadows any possible surprise. The Obama campaign will love tomorrow's headlines.