Tonight's debate was a political Rorschach test. Wherever you were at 8:59 pm ET, you were at 10:36 pm (the debate ran a few minutes long).
It was a good night for Obama because, when 83 percent of the country believe we are on the wrong track, standing toe-to-toe with McCain on foreign policy is all you need to do. And Obama clearly did that -- scoring strong points on the lessons of Iraq, where he pointed out all the ways McCain had been wrong on the war. He even landed a zinger: "John, you like to pretend the war began in 2007."
It was a good night for McCain because, after a week in which he'd been bleeding like a hemophiliac in a barbed wire factory, tonight stanched the bleeding. He was able to keep the debate about the economy focused on taxes and cutting spending, as opposed to the crisis brought on by the free market, deregulation religion of which he is a devout follower. And he was able to interject himself into the major foreign policy decisions of the last 20 years.
But it was a bad night for reality. Did John McCain really try to reclaim the high ground on torture after having caved on the issue earlier in the year? And did he really profess his love for veterans after having fought against the new GI Bill?
The worst blow to reality came when the candidates took on the question of whether we are safer now than we were on 9/11. Both men agreed that, although there is still work to be done, we are, in fact, safer than we were. A low point: Obama pointing to improved airport security.
In truth, we are not safer. The Taliban is resurgent, al Qaeda is resurgent, Osama is still on the loose, Iran has increased its influence and has a burgeoning nuclear program, North Korea has joined the nuclear club, our ports are still porous, our chemical plants still poorly guarded, our railways and roadways vulnerable, and our standing in the world has been greatly diminished. But, hey, we now have to take off our sneakers at the airport and can only bring on board three ounces of conditioner.
Style points: I give it to Obama, who came across as relaxed and gracious (too gracious; enough with the repeated claims that "John is right"). McCain looked like he forgot to take his Metamucil.
Best moments: For Obama, it was his run on Iraq, his "muddle through" riff ("you don't muddle through Osama... you don't muddle through the Taliban"), and his reminder of McCain's gaffe about not meeting with the prime minister of Spain.
For McCain, it was his line about Putin ("I looked into his eyes and saw three letters: KGB), and his mocking line about sitting down with Ahmadinejad.
Most contrived moment: the dueling tales of bracelets given to them by the mothers of fallen soldiers.
Final verdict: McCain back from the dead, but not nearly enough to seize the momentum in a change election.
Tomorrow morning, after the dust has settled, and the best soundbytes have been played out, the economy will still be in free fall, McCain will still be the guy who 10 days ago thought the fundamentals of the economy are strong, and 83 percent of the country will still be looking for a change in direction.