11/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

America Finally Gets a Presidential Debate, Because Candidates Gave Them One

Viewers Thursday night finally got something closely resembling a debate between the two candidates for president -- though moderator Bob Schieffer, good as he was, didn't have a lot to do with it.

I'm crediting instead all the complaints about the last two debates between John McCain and Barack Obama, in which both men avoided questions they didn't like and ran over time limits like a crowd of shoppers at a Christmas Eve sale.

Clearly, the format of this debate also fed interaction, as both men sat at a table within feet of each other, needing only a nod and brief word of "response?" from Schieffer to bring an energetic rebuttal.

Early on, I got the feeling this was the kind of clash that would play better for McCain over the radio than on TV. Visually, the Republican echoed all the attitudes voters have been telling pollsters for the last week or so they dislike: bitter anger, impatience, a dismissive contempt for his rival and an impatient glee in unleashing attacks he thinks might damage his opponent.

Obama on the other hand, played a safer game -- batting back the expected attacks on former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, contentions that he wants to tax small business and John Lewis' comparison of the rhetoric during Sarah Palin rallies to racist activists during the civil rights era.

But he didn't respond to some accurate complaints from McCain -- that Democratic ads have mischaracterized his stands on illegal immigration and stem cell research -- instead, reaching for independent voters with a passionate middle-ground justification for abortion rights.

CBS anchor Schieffer mostly scored by setting the table with interesting questions and getting out of the way, interrupting only occasionally to move on when both men seemed willing to keep arguing points. "By now, we've heard all the talking points," he told the candidates at the start. "Let's try to tell the people some things they haven't heard."

Watching part of CNN's coverage, with its controversial gauge from a sample of uncommitted voters providing real time indications of their opinion, you saw their interest rise whenever talk turned to the struggles they were facing every day, dipping when the discussion veered into campaign tactics and old history.

I will break with many pundits arguing that McCain's 20 references to Ohio plumber Joe Wurzelbacher was an inspired stroke -- to these ears, it felt more like a campaign tactic, particularly when the references kept coming well into the debate. It felt even odder when Wurzelbacher, wading through the expected round of post-debate interviews, clearly favored McCain though he would not admit it -- saying Obama tap-danced around his questions like Sammy Davis Jr. in an uncomfortable moment during an interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric.

(Points to CBS News and Couric for nailing the first TV interview with Wurzelbacher, though she loses half those points for putting him on so late in the network's coverage that he literally was able to answer just one question on network TV, before they moved the interview to the Web)

McCain's declaration that "I am not George Bush, if you wanted to run against him you should have done it four years ago" was a line conservatives probably loved. But to those leaning toward Obama, it probably sounded like a flip response to his candidacy's biggest weakness -- its association with a deeply unpopular president.

I was surprised by the snap polls from CBS and CNN showing a big win for Obama (53 to 22 percent in Obama's favor in CBS' poll? Really?) I don't think McCain ran the table like he wanted, but he did raise his rhetorical game. Unfortunately, the bases he kept touching -- lower taxes, school vouchers, anti-abortion ideals -- were issues electrifying the GOP base with little appeal for swing voters. Ditto with the grouchy attacks and petulant campaign complaints; that stuff just convinces voters you care more about your own pain than theirs.

By mostly keeping his calm and occasionally reaching for the independents -- even while describing GOP supporters calling for him to be killed during rallies -- Obama narrowly "won" a debate that felt much more like a vigorous clash between two skilled politicians than previous exchanges. Thank goodness they both decided it was time -- just in time for voters.

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