Analysts: No Game-Changer in First Debate

The candidates did battle, and the verdict is in: Barack Obama and John McCain both appeared presidential in their first debate -- but neither man leveled with the American people about the economic storm battering the nation and the painful choices ahead.

The candidates wasted no time today trying to capitalize on their performances Friday night on the campus of the University of Mississippi.

As Obama returned to the stump, his campaign broadcast a television ad pointing out that McCain did not mention the words "middle class" once in the debate.

"John McCain doesn't get it," the ad said.

Republicans around the nation received an e-mail pitch from the McCain campaign claiming the debate showed McCain would make the better president.

"We won't win without your support," the e-mail said. "Help us by making a contribution right now."

On the morning after, analysts said the debate yielded no knockout punches or game-changing gaffes that might alter the dynamics of the race. Obama entered the debate nursing a small lead in the polls, and likely left Ole Miss with his advantage intact.

But in sidestepping controversy, Obama and McCain shed little light on how they would tackle the No. 1 issue suddenly shadowing the campaign and the nation -- how to prevent the collapse of the financial system and pay for whatever bailout is developed, analysts said.

"The moderator Jim Lehrer kept pressing the candidates, but the questioning yielded very unsatisfactory answers," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

"In the circumstances the country finds itself in, this is very disappointing -- in particular coming from two candidates who promised us a different kind of politics," she said.

With the first debate behind them, both candidates could say they had achieved everything on their "to do" lists.

Obama repeatedly sought to bind McCain to the policies of President Bush and portray himself as conversant in foreign affairs -- supposedly McCain's strong suit.

McCain frequently cast himself as a battle-tested statesman and Obama as a naïve and presumptuous upstart who "doesn't seem to understand" the threats to the U.S. around the world.

Although the debate produced no powerfully memorable exchanges or blunders, each man drew blood. McCain belittled Obama's stated willingness to meet with foreign leaders hostile to the U.S.

"So let me get this right," McCain said, sounding more than a little exasperated. "We sit down with [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, and he says, 'We're going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,' and we say, 'No you're not?' Oh, please."

Obama poked McCain for responding to a question about Iran during a town hall meeting last year by singing "bomb bomb bomb" to the tune of a Beach Boys song.

"John, you're absolutely right, presidents have to be prudent in what they say," Obama said.

"Is the race now different than it was at 9 p.m. eastern time?" ABC commentator George Will asked after the debate. "The answer, I think, is no. This wasn't a game-changer. Both had their familiar personas. Barack Obama was the rather tweedy professor conducting a national seminar. John McCain was a rather hotter personality, the national scold."

David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York City, said, "It was a very strong debate for both candidates."

McCain "avoided some of the senior slips that he had been prone to in the primaries," while avoiding the "kind of negativity that dominated the latter half of the primary season, particularly in his exchanges with Mitt Romney."

"And Barack Obama was clear, succinct and less reflective … than he has been in previous debates," Birdsell said. "He was able to hold his own against a number of very pointed attacks from John McCain."

Birdsell said that if he had to pick a winner, he would declare a narrow victory for Obama.

"He answered questions about his fitness to lead," Birdsell said, while McCain belittled Obama too many times by repeatedly declaring that the first-term Democrat "doesn't seem to understand."

Both candidates were vague on where they stand on the specifics of the $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan taking shape in Washington. And they were similiarly hazy on how they would pay for any bailout.

Obama said spending will have to be scaled back, then cited areas he wants to spend more money on, including health care, infrastructure and energy development. McCain he would look at freezing spending, except for some of the largest areas of the budget, including defense and entitlements.

"Sen. Obama basically dodged the question," Jamieson said. "Sen. McCain succeeded marginally -- marginally -- by at least offering some alternatives.

"When one of them becomes president and confronts the budget, he is going to have to cut his plans for spending and for cutting taxes," Jamieson said. The answers Obama and McCain gave "might help them win an election ... but each man didn't do what he needed to do to govern."