Grading the Final Presidential Debate

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Democrat Barack Obama, left, speaks during the third presidential debate with Republican John McCain at Hofstra University on Oct. 15

Barack Obama


Intelligent, knowledgeable and an earnest explainer, as always, but to no real effect. Though he conveyed a general sense of his agenda, he did so without bothering to fight ardently for his case. Grade: B


Appeared tired and irritable, and bore the ills of a poor makeup job. While initially seeming distracted and even resentful of the evening's activity, he eventually realized he needed to step up his game, and became more conversational and involved. Recovered after the rocky start to avoid anything transformative for his opponent. Grade: B-


Rarely went after McCain, and when he did, was indirect and often too vague. Grade: C+


Unrattled by frequent McCain attacks but a little peevish in addressing the allegations tossed his way. He strained to defend his positions on health care and taxes and failed to express a fully formed alternative explanation. Relying on polling data to excuse himself for the campaign's negative tone and implicitly for going back on his word on campaign financing, he seemed indifferent toward the recent mutually harsh words, placing the blame firmly on his opposition. Grade: B+

During the first half of the debate, the Democratic nominee too often displayed his worst traits — petty, aloof, imperious — and behaved as if he had someplace better to be, though he became warmer and more engaged as the evening progressed. He did not seem to have an explicit strategy, answering the questions piecemeal as they came his way, without driving a message or even a theme. He retained his consistently unflappable air and had a few fine moments. If he was sitting on his lead, it worked — but perhaps at the expense of relinquishing part of it. Overall grade: B

John McCain


Avoided the policy weeds, as usual, but sounded more engaged regarding his economic program, presenting a clear, thematic argument. He was also good on climate change, trade, taxes and spending. It was an impressive performance from a politician who is generally more comfortable offering broad statements and displaying his compelling personality than focusing on details and the nitty-gritty. Grade: A-


For 40 minutes, he was cogent, friendly and yet sharp when he needed to be. Well aware of the stakes and his underdog circumstance, he worked hard to hit all his marks. Showed genuine empathy about the ramifications of the battered economy, small-business struggles and even childhood obesity. But he lost points during the second half of the session by falling back on the awkward, cranky tics that marred his earlier performances. Grade: B+


Hit Obama again and again, almost always with authority and command rather than with desperation. Repeatedly steered the evening's discussion to a plumber named Joe who talked about taxes with Obama during a recent campaign event — and scored points. He deftly used opposition research on Obama's record, and did so far more effectively than in the first two debates. Skillfully attacked his opponent for not keeping his word on campaign financing and for refusing to hold joint town meetings. At times, though, he became too agitated and lost focus, particularly when he raised the Bill Ayers matter — still a negative bridge too far for many. Grade: A-


Dramatically proclaimed "I am not President Bush" with toughness and clarity, in one of the few true "moments" in any of the debates — the tangible ripple of reaction from the (albeit silent) crowd signaled that the video clip will likely be replayed many times. Grade: A-

During the first half of the debate, the Republican nominee showed off the best of himself — dedicated, sincere, patriotic, cheery, earnest, commanding — all without seeming old or anxious. He even scored some points in the "change" category, against the candidate who has owned the theme. He was also clear, upbeat and totally on message. To his detriment, however, he became more aggressive and distracted during the second half, and perhaps lost a chance for winning the truly dramatic event he needs to change the game. Still, if a silent majority of persuadable voters watched the debate, they would have seen why McCain's advisers have faith in him and still believe he can win this race. Overall grade: A-

(Click here to see 10 Memorable Debate Moments.)

(See a gallery of campaign gaffes here.)