By Peter S. Canellos, Boston Globe Washington Bureau Chief
WASHINGTON -- John McCain last night tried hard to make the first presidential debate a test of Barack Obama's fitness for office. McCain succeeded in his framing of the test -- but Obama passed it.
In an encounter that seems destined to be remembered more for its substance than any quips or gaffes, the two candidates defended their positions stoutly, outlined clear contrasts for the voters, and showed a command of the issues that was greater than in most past presidential debates.
McCain persuasively cast himself as a government reformer committed to cutting spending; but Obama forcefully argued that cutting spending alone would not revitalize the economy.
McCain explained clearly why he believed "victory" in Iraq would be jeopardized by setting a timetable for withdrawal; but Obama argued strongly that a disproportionate focus on Iraq was jeopardizing success in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"It was substantive, it was detailed, and, I could say, no clear winner," concluded Wayne Lesperance, political scientist at New England College. "McCain, I thought, was strong on the economic questions. And Obama more than held his own on foreign policy. It was kind of a reversal of the conventional wisdom."
But with the majority of the debate focused on foreign policy -- where McCain's superiority was assumed, and Obama's vulnerability was greatest -- the lack of a clear winner benefits Obama more than McCain.
Voters concerned that Obama might be too dovish to defend the country heard him promise to increase troops in Afghanistan and redouble efforts to "capture or kill" Osama bin Laden.
Voters concerned that Obama lacked a strategic knowledge of the world heard him discourse comfortably and intelligently on the complex challenges facing the United States in Russia, China, Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Good judgment, he suggested, was as important as experience.
"We took our eye off Afghanistan. We took our eye off the folks who perpetrated 9/11. They are still sending out videotapes. And Senator McCain, nobody's talking about defeat in Iraq, but you know, I have to say we are having enormous problems in Afghanistan because of that decision."
McCain tried repeatedly to portray Obama as a neophyte, prefacing many answers with variants of the statement, "What Sen. Obama doesn't seem to understand," and later insisting that Obama "showed a little bit of naivete."
But Obama didn't seem either uncomprehending or naive, and McCain seemed so frustrated at times that he almost lost his cool.
After Obama followed a McCain jab about Obama's failure to hold a hearing of his Senate subcommittee with a return punch that McCain had once claimed the United States could "muddle through" in Afghanistan, the Arizona senator clenched his teeth, flared his eyes, and seemed on the verge of losing composure.
Finally, he came out and said what he couldn't demonstrate.
"I honestly don't believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience, and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas," McCain insisted.
But the claim wasn't backed up by what viewers had seen for the past hour.
Earlier, when McCain was at his most vulnerable, he himself didn't give an inch.
McCain insisted that reining in government spending and preserving lower tax rates would be the best cure for the economy. Obama argued equally forcefully that what's needed is a change of philosophy, and that McCain had been a willing traveler on the Bush Adminstration's failed economic policies.
McCain would have none of it.
"It's well known that I have not been elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate, nor with the administration," he shot back, in one of his strongest responses of the night. "I have opposed the president on spending, on climate change, on torture of prisoners, on Guantanamo Bay, on the way the Iraq war was conducted. I have a long record, and the American people know me well."
They do. They know Obama less well. But last night, they probably came away feeling they knew him a little better -- and liked what they saw.
Both candidates came off well. But Obama had more to gain, and he did.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.