Last Spring, Barack Obama stumbled through the Democratic debates, seeming unsure and unfocused. Tonight, he nailed almost every question. Agree or disagree with his arguments, it’s hard to argue that he was anything but poised and informed. He may have won his party’s nomination with soaring rhetoric, but he’s winning the general election with smart exactitude. I am truly impressed by how much depth he’s added over the last nine months.

How about John McCain? Well, he probably needed a knockout at this point in the campaign. He didn’t get one, although he was generally stronger and more relatable than he was during the last debate. Against someone like John Kerry, McCain would have won. He has a good hold of the issues and he learned them the old fashioned way: through a lifetime of service. But he had some trouble focusing his thoughts tonight and his humor – usually one of the aspects that make him good in town halls – fell flat.

Anyone who’s been paying attention to this race didn’t learn much new. The only real policy revelation for me was that Obama seems to be warming up to nuclear energy. Otherwise, this was all about watching how solidly the candidate’s understand the issues and how they perform in a less-structured environment.

On the issues, I didn’t feel either had a good grasp of what to do about the economy. Now, I don’t think anyone has a good grasp on this issue, but I would like to have heard more big ideas rather than bits and pieces of ideas still in formation.

On health care, Obama won by having a more understandable plan, even though I don’t particularly like it. On foreign relations, McCain had a hard time separating himself from the mistakes of the last 8 years but he did well in promoting his experience and judgment. Obama showed more than enough knowledge to seem trustworthy on the issue and I think he pulled out a draw here.

On the environment, Obama once again had a clearer, more understandable plan. McCain should have pushed the candidate’s differences on nuclear power, but he rambled during his answer.

Finally, on government spending and responsibility, I don’t for a minute believe Obama will be able to enact all his spending proposals and his tax cuts during an economic recession. But it’s not like McCain is promoting fiscal responsibility outside of the relatively small budget impact of earmarks. That’s a shame, because this is an issue McCain could have won.

All said, this was a good debate. I think Obama won simply by seeming more focused. Whether you like what he had to say depends on your leanings. But he said it all well – not because he used mesmerizing rhetoric but because he had such good specificity.

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