James Fallows thinks we saw a turning point last night:
When the details of this encounter fade, as they soon will, I think the debate as a whole will be seen as of a piece with Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, Reagan-Carter in 1980, and Clinton-Bush in 1992.
In each of those cases, a fresh, new candidate (although chronologically older in Reagan’s case) had been gathering momentum at a time of general dissatisfaction with the “four more years” option of sticking with the incumbent party. The question was whether the challenger could stand as an equal with the more experienced, tested, and familiar figure. In each of those cases, the challenger passed the test — not necessarily by “winning” the debate, either on logical points or in immediate audience or polling reactions, but by subtly reassuring doubters on the basic issue of whether he was a plausible occupant of the White House and commander in chief.
I’ll just say I think McCain is playing with a bit of fire when he lets his contempt for Barack Obama show through so clearly. Those of us who follow politics obsessively are now well-informed about this aspect of the campaign, but most people probably don’t see it under ordinary circumstances. And whatever partisans on either side may think, or the fashionable “they both suck” cynics may say, surveys indicate that McCain and Obama are both popular and the key swing constituency is composed of people who have warm feelings toward both guys. That means, to me, that a negative, slashing, attacking approach is a totally reasonable approach but you’ve got to have the good. Sneering about how so-and-so “doesn’t understand” when he seems to understand just fine, and most people are predisposed to like him is a potential disaster.