Substance: Delved only occasionally into specifics when describing his agenda, focusing on spending and tax cuts. He had a bit of trouble elucidating his health-care and energy policies and did little to close the gap with Obama on whom voters trust to deal with the economy.
Style: Clearly more confident talking to voters in his cherished town-hall format than standing behind a podium. Authentically displayed feel-your-pain concern over the economy, in a smoother manner than usual. But while he held the audience's attention with his answers and theatrics, he distractingly and conspicuously scribbled notes when Obama had the floor. His errant reference to Obama as "that one" probably jarred some viewers. Bottom line: with his rival in the lead, the Republican nominee was forced into aggression and antagonism but often flirted with the desperate and negative.
Offense: Took some risks by hitting Obama for being liberal and for a range of other alleged offenses, but kept his tone appropriate for the format and avoided purely personal attacks. Occasionally stumbling over some of his sharper rehearsed lines, he muted their effectiveness. Didn't once fluster Obama, though he did lay down the foundation he needs to try to mount a comeback by sowing doubts about the Democrat. Pulled off his primary task more deftly than even his aides could have hoped.
Defense: Mostly ignored Obama's swipes, maintained his composure and rarely looked annoyed. Still, though he kept his focus cleanly on the issues, he oddly made little attempt to separate himself from President Bush when Obama linked the two. Did not engage Obama on a point-by-point rebuttal of detailed accusations.
Overall: As promised, he was comfortable in a town-hall environment, directing his attention to the individual questioner and the crowd. The Arizona Senator was by turns aggressive, sensitive, conservative and conversational. Successfully presented a negative case against Obama with an upbeat, optimistic smile but was unable to paint a truly damning portrait of an Obama presidency, especially on the economy. He exhibited a few physical and verbal tics that made him look his age, including a heavy reliance on his "my friends" crutch, and seemed nervously well aware of the high stakes. Without a solid win, he did not make up as much ground as he needed to, but lives to fight on.Overall grade: B