My friend Tim Russert, who didn't pull his words, famously said on the night of the North Carolina and Indiana primaries: "I think we now know who the Democratic nominee will be." Tonight I think we know who the next President will be.
The debate was a crossroads. For two weeks, John McCain has lurched down a dead-end road on the economy, from happy talk about "sound fundamentals" to gloom about economic crisis; alternately out of touch, confused and self-contradictory; then desperately reaching for another stunt with his blundering, transparently opportunistic intrusion into the financial rescue negotiations which crimped his debate prep. He clearly could have used more.
Barack Obama was crisp, reassuring and strong -- in short, presidential, as he has been throughout the financial storm of the past two weeks. McCain was not as bad as he has been recently; but much of this debate was fought on what was supposed to be his high ground. As the encounter ended, Obama not only controlled the commanding heights of the economic issue -- and he not only held his own on national security -- but clearly passed the threshold as a credible commander-in-chief. McCain kept repeating that Obama doesn't "understand." But he clearly did. McCain made up no ground. That's similar to what happened in 1960 when Nixon ran on the slogan "Experience Counts" but found it didn't count that much when voters decided JFK was up to the job after the side by side comparison they saw in the first debate.
So what does McCain have left? Behind on the economy, no longer able to slip into the White House on the now disproven claim that only he can handle national security, he has two more debates but no big offer to the country. And then there's the VP debate -- which is likely to be seen as the peril of Palin. (Can't they give her a basic briefing, maybe in a spiral notebook -- or is it too much to read and too hard to remember?)
McCain has nowhere to go but stunts, warmed over stump lines, and lying ads -- which pollute his brand more than they hurt Obama, and the ugly hope that backlash may save his feckless campaign. The press will mostly miss the point: Obama met and surpassed the test.