John McCain spent 90 minutes tonight telling voters Barack Obama "doesn't understand" what America is facing, as Obama demonstrated a broad grasp of the 21st century issues besetting the economy and national security.
Body language was revealing in McCain's tight grin that occasionally morphed into a smirk under criticism, while Obama featured a relaxed smile and at least half a dozen times responded with a generous "John is right, but..."
Behind the difference in demeanor was the familiar clash of experience vs. change that is at the heart of the contest, with McCain distancing himself from Bush-Cheney and impressively name-dropping world leaders (but getting wrong the new president of Pakistan) to persuade voters that Obama is too naïve to deal with a dangerous world.
There was no defining "gotcha" moment but, in light of Obama's need to show persuadable voters that he has the intellect and disposition to occupy the Oval Office, he made progress as did McCain by appearing forceful and knowing to offset doubts about his age and hair-trigger temper.
Most of the time, the candidates talked past each other but after McCain had hammered away at the need to cut government spending, Obama confronted him with:
"John, it's been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who presided over this increase in spending. This orgy of spending and enormous deficits you voted for almost all of his budgets. So to stand here and after eight years and say that you're going to lead on controlling spending...is, you know, kind of hard to swallow."
What is unknowable is how the debate affected the unspoken subtext of this election--race.
The site itself was a third presence tonight, the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where 46 years ago Army troops surrounded James Meredith as he integrated "Ole Miss" amid riots and bloodshed.
Meredith himself, who later became a Republican on the staff of Sen. Jesse Helms, is a cranky reminder of the complexity of race in the South. He declined an invitation to the debate. "My wife and son will be there," he told the Washington Post. "I'm taking care of the grandbabies."
But those of my generation can't overlook the history that, when Meredith entered the university, the interracial marriage of Barack Obama's parents was illegal there, and that John McCain's great-great grandfather had owned a plantation nearby.
Almost half a century later, things have changed but race is still an issue there and in much of America and will affect the result of this election, no matter how well the candidates performed tonight.