The only live feed I could get of last night's debate was on a local ABC station (ABC- you should be ashamed of the poor coverage of this....actually you should be ashamed for how this debate was hosted and produced also.....) It was very irritating that the debate was overshadowed by a focus group response graph thingy (what do you call them?) Basically, 25 undecided voters sit in a room and indicate their reaction to what the candidates are saying using a dial on a scale 0-100 (50 being neutral, 0 being very negative.) After a while though, the response graph thingy was quite interesting.
I picked up the following things:
i) Clinton scored very well when she was a unifier, i.e. when she praised Obama and said the party should unite to take on McCain.
ii) She scored poorly when she attacked Obama but
iii) He then scored poorly in responding to her attacks AND his defences went on for longer so he was suffering for longer periods of time. In other words, Clinton didn't gain by attacking him but he couldn't gain either and may have lost.
iv) The 'bitter' gaffe was not playing particularly badly but when he talked about Jeremiah Wright it did.
v) The only big NEGATIVE of the night was when Clinton was talking about the Bosnian episode.
vi) Obama refused to comment on this issue which went down well but then, of course, Clinton was allowed to move off her negatives quickly so she did not sustain long periods of tough focus. The moderators did not step in where Obama did not and this was a major failing in my view as it meant that three-quarters of the first hour of debate were focused on Obama's negatives and that was disproportionate.
vii) Both candidates scored VERY highly whenever they discussed the issues: healthcare, the economy, Iraq, trade, housing etc...
Sorry if the above seems a bit geeky (in my defence, I had to watch the graph thingy...) but it shows something very important. Obama has clearly decided to play these debates fair by and large (there have been exceptions like when he attacked Clinton for being on the Board of Wal-mart.) But he is not, in the short term, getting the benefit from that. Despite having pretty high ratings throughout most of the debate, he lost 2-1 among the undecided voters in that focus group.
So the calculation is clearly that he gains more in the long-term image stakes by the way he conducts himself. That is a really tough call and before the McCain debates he's going to have to re-visit that calculation. My instinct would be that he should punch a little more often but not change his overall approach.
In fairness, Hillary Clinton did perform better in the meaty part of the debate, i.e. on the issues. I don't think that is necessarily of grave concern for Obama though he did seem very shaky on the issue of tax and seemed at one point to be making up policy on the spot after he had clearly contradicted himself on whether he would tax those on $97,000-$200,000 a year more. He'll have to time to mug up before September and McCain is not without weaknesses there.
Postscript: More on ABC news: it was hosted by George Stephanopoulos who worked for Bill Clinton and basically wrote a book of unrequited love to him, All too Human. He more ruthlessly pursued Obama's negatives than he did Hillary Clinton's last night. I lost count of the number of times Chelsea Clinton flashed up on my screen. General Wesley Clark, a Clinton supporter, kept on flashing up when Hillary was talking about Commander-in-Chief issues also. At one point, Hillary almost directed the camera to him in the audience! ABC came across as grossly unprofessional and biased.....