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Substance: Quite manifestly immersed in the past, present, and future details of policy, and eager to express his views, which have been expanded, honed, and solidified during the last 18 months of hard campaigning. Still, he did avoid the nitty-gritty details of policy positions in favor of broad principles and references to working Americans, thereby not presenting the kind of specifics that some voters are waiting to hear from him.
Style: Polished, confident, focused. Fully prepared, and able to convey a real depth of knowledge on nearly every issue. He was unhurried, and rarely lost his train of thought even when the debate wended and winded and uttered far fewer of his trademark, distracting, "ums." At times, however, Obama revealed the level of his preparation by faltering over a rehearsed answer. He seemed to deliberately focus on the moderator and the home audience, with McCain as an afterthought except when on the attack. Chose to avoid humor, for the most part, in favor of a stern demeanor, and in the process, came off as cool as a cucumber.
Offense: Linking McCain to Bush in his very first answer, he kept it up as his primary line of attack. Forcefully hit McCain for his early support of the Iraq War. Though he never drew blood, he did keep McCain a bit off balance, often with clever references to McCain's recent statements.
Defense: Had a reasonable answer for every charge that came his way with little anger, bluster, or anxiety. Often interrupting McCain attacks with swift explanations and comebacks, he managed to spin accusations of being liberal as evidence of his relentless opposition to George Bush (in replies that were clearly planned). Offered a rather clumsy alternative to McCain's well-known, moving story of wearing the bracelet of a soldier lost in Iraq (a gift from the soldier's mother), with a story about a bracelet of his own. Fearless, without condescension, he attempted the gracious move of agreeing with or complimenting a McCain position, occasionally to his own detriment.
Overall: Went for a solid, consistent performance to introduce himself to the country. He did not seem nervous, tentative, or intimidated by the event, and avoided mistakes from his weak debate performances during nomination season (a professorial tone and long winded answers). Standing comfortably on the stage with his rival, he showed he belonged evocative of Reagan, circa 1980. He was so confident by the end that he reminded his biggest audience yet that his father was from Kenya. Two more performances like that and he will be very tough to beat on Election Day.
Overall grade: A-