John McCain did not have the debate he needed on Tuesday night.
McCain's style was aggressive, disciplined and occasionally punchy. He heaped criticism on Barack Obama, blasting his record on taxes, health care and earmarks, and at one point derisively called the Democratic nominee "That One." McCain made over 14 references to the candidates' "records," pleading with voters to put aside Obama's words and inspect his history.
McCain's policy rhetoric was populist, reformist and sometimes contrarian. He floated the name of Obama backer Warren Buffet as a potential Treasury Secretary, and pledged that his administration would swiftly "buy up" all "the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes." (Obama's rapid response team immediately noted that the bailout bill already includes "authority" for the Treasury to buy residential and commercial mortgages.) After all the audience questions and Brokaw quips piled up, however, McCain still failed to upend the narrative. It's a major setback in a race that is trending towards Obama and running out of time.
While McCain attacked most of the night -- in spite of the intimate, town hall setting -- Obama stuck to a crisper, measured tone. He still returned fire when necessary, counter-punching a financial attack by noting that "McCain's campaign chairman's firm was a lobbyist on behalf of Fannie Mae." Obama swiftly pivoted, however, to addressing the economy from a regular voter's perspective. "But, look, you're not interested in hearing politicians pointing fingers. What you're interested in is trying to figure out, how is this going to impact you?" Then he touted his plans to "strengthen" home buyers and advance regulation instead of the free market fundamentalism that ruled over the past "eight years."
I think Obama's best moment came when he reprised McCain's attack from the last debate. "Sen. McCain, in the last debate and today, again, suggested that I don't understand. It's true. There are some things I don't understand," he said firmly. "I don't understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us. That was Sen. McCain's judgment and it was the wrong judgment. When Sen. McCain was cheerleading the president to go into Iraq, he suggested it was going to be quick and easy, we'd be greeted as liberators," he explained, concluding, "That was the wrong judgment, and it's been costly to us."
Before the debate had even ended, the Republican National Committee was already spinning a disappointing night for McCain. In the 10pm hour, an RNC spokesperson sent reporters a post by Politico's Ben Smith, "Not really a town hall," complaining about the format.