A focus group of 45 voters with an "unmistakenly Republican tilt" believed that Obama won the night handily:
[B]y a 38 to 27 percent margin these voters said that Obama won this debate. ... A look at the underlying numbers shows that Obama made important gains that could endure through Election Day. These undecided voters had a strong positive reaction to Obama on a personal level. Before the debate, just 40 percent viewed Obama positively, but this skyrocketed to 69 percent after the debate - a remarkable 29-point gain that left him more personally popular than McCain despite this group's conservative leanings. He also made large strides on being seen as independent, from 44 percent to 65 percent. And in head-to-head matchups against McCain, Obama made significant gains on who "shares your values" and is "on your side."
The New York Times editorial board writes that Obama won the discussion of the economy and that McCain seemed out of step with the current moment:
Mr. McCain fumbled his way through the economic portion of the debate, while Mr. Obama seemed clear and confident. Mr. McCain was more fluent on foreign affairs, and scored points by repeatedly calling Mr. Obama naïve and inexperienced.
But Mr. McCain's talk of experience too often made him sound like a tinny echo of the 20th century. At one point, he talked about how Ronald Reagan's "S.D.I." helped end the cold war. We suspect that few people under the age of 50 caught the reference. If he was reaching for Reagan's affable style, he missed by a mile, clenching his teeth and sounding crotchety where Reagan was sunny and avuncular.
Dan Balz, providing analysis for the Washington Post, says there was no knockout punch:
Each rose to the challenge here Friday night, forcefully scoring points on one another, sparkling at times, but neither emerged as the obvious winner except perhaps to their partisans. There were good exchanges but few big moments of the kind that can change a presidential race.
Meanwhile his colleague Tom Shales sums up the night as 'McCain too nasty, Obama too nice':
Obama supporters must have been displeased, then, to hear their candidate keep agreeing with McCain, a case perhaps of sportsmanlike conduct run amok. Doesn't Obama want to win?[...]
Many of McCain's answers were preceded with belittling references to Obama as if he were talking to a college freshman way out of his depth.
The Wall Street Journal editorial board felt that McCain won on foreign policy while Obama won on the economy:
As planned by the commission on debates, most of the night was devoted to foreign policy and there we give the clear edge to Mr. McCain. This is the ground where the 72-year-old is most comfortable, and you could see it in his self-confidence, as well as his command of history and facts.[...]
Where Mr. Obama did score better was on the domestic front, where he tried repeatedly to link Mr. McCain to President Bush and to what he called a failed "economic philosophy."
For the Los Angeles Times the debate was too close to call in terms of a winner:
In a debate that both candidates could ill-afford to lose Friday night, neither did. John McCain proved he was resolute and tough; Barack Obama demonstrated that he was smart and polished. And in this case, a tie could be said to favor either.
Time's Joe Klein calls it a narrow victory for Obama:
Obama emerged as a candidate who was at least as knowledgeable, judicious and unflappable as McCain on foreign policy ... and more knowledgeable, and better suited to deal with the economic crisis and domestic problems the country faces.
On ABC, George Stephanopoulos concluded:
And overall, bottom line, the winner is Barack Obama. He comes into this race where the country wants change, his number one goal was to show that he belonged on that stage...he could hold his own on national security, he did that tonight, he gets the win.
Appearing alongside him was George Will, who also said Obama came out ahead:
I think Barack Obama came out and looked comfortable and as though he belonged there. So, in a sense, the structure of the debate, indeed, the fact of the debate had to give a mild leg up to Barack Obama.
Several positive reviews for Obama. A CBS News instant poll finds:
40% of uncommitted voters who watched the debate tonight thought Barack Obama was the winner. 22% thought John McCain won. 38% saw it as a draw.
68% of these voters think Obama would make the right decision
about the economy. 41% think McCain would.
49% of these voters think Obama would make the right decisions about Iraq. 55% think McCain would.
Two focus groups, one by GOP pollster Frank Luntz and another by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, both declared Obama the winner. Here's video of Luntz, some pretty powerful stuff:
Independents in the MediaCurves focus group "gave the debate to Obama 61-39. They also think he won every individual segment. Republicans gave the debate to McCain 90-10, Democrats to Obama 93-7."
And even Time's Mark Halperin weighs in with his grades: Obama A-, McCain B-.
Update: CNN's poll has all Obama winning overall, on the economy and on Iraq:
Who Did the Best Job In the Debate?
Who Would Better Handle Economy?
Who Would Better Handle Iraq?