It was just not a very interesting debate. It seemed that all of the answers were just excerpts from the stump speeches, and little was different from last week. The Town Hall format was supposed to make a difference in how the candidates answered questions, but (except for the effective moment with McCain shaking the hand of the Chief Petty Officer) it didn’t really make a difference. The rules were so confining and the crowd was so obediently polite that the format didn’t open things up at all. Heck, both candidates whining about the rules (to which they agreed!) will probably be the main point of ridicule on SNL.
Both candidates played it safe. For Obama, that’s ok because he’s currently very far ahead (FiveThirtyEight gives him a 89.2% chance of winning on November 4 and 270towin gives him a 99.1% lead at this moment). For McCain, though, this debate was just not enough. Barring some huge unexpected situation, this debate and next week’s debate are likely McCain’s last chances to change people’s minds. I just don’t see that McCain did anything to change the race.
Perhaps McCain’s problem is that he has used up his chances to shake things up. He’s already rolled the dice at least four times in the last few weeks: the surprising “Celebrity” ads; canceling the first day of the RNC; the shocking Sarah Palin choice; and the silly “suspension” stunt). Some of these worked for him (Celebrity, RNC, Palin at first) and some flopped (Palin once she was interviewed and the “suspension”). He needed a game changer in this debate, but maybe his bag of tricks has simply run out.
And even if he finds another trick, chances are that it wouldn’t be successful. Looking at the four gambles he took, the first was very successful at improving his numbers compared to Obama, but each successive gamble was less successful than its predecessor. It could be just coincidence (or an artifact of my bias), but I think we might be seeing diminishing returns as each gamble makes him look less Presidential.
McCain both needed a gamble tonight and would likely have been hurt by a gamble tonight. Not a good place for him to be.