By all measures, Barack Obama won by a wide margin tonight's debate, which was focused on issues, with no mention of Sarah Palin or the smears she has been spreading out on the McCain campaign's low road.
For the first hour, the Republican candidate's demeanor consisted of an odd Uriah Heep cringe with a cajoling, almost imploring tone suggesting that McCain was trying very hard to project sincerity in his prescriptions for the economy. Only in the final thirty minutes, in the segment on foreign policy, did he stand tall and sound confidently presidential.
Once again, as in his refusal to look at or address Obama directly in the first debate, there was a dismissive attitude, reflected in his finger-pointing reference to "that one" as he criticized Obama's vote on an energy bill.
Substantively, Obama was crisp and responsive in outlining what he would do about the economy, but seemed more defensive than he needed to be in countering McCain's charges that his statements on Pakistan reflected inexperience.
But the net effect tonight was to reinforce Obama's image as presidential and forward-looking while underscoring McCain's age and the weight of the Bush years that he is carrying in the campaign.
In a pre-debate CNN poll today, 55 percent of registered voters said that Obama "cares more about people like you," while 35 percent said McCain cares more than Obama. On the question of who has a clearer plan to solve the country's problems, Obama held a 15-point lead over McCain, 48 to 33 percent.
When it was over, Obama's advantage in the CNN instant polling had widened on the crucial questions of leadership.
Tomorrow, McCain and Palin will be back out on the low road, dispensing more of the dirt of the last week, but voters worried about their jobs and their homes are not likely to want to wallow in it.