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Alan Brinkley On Last Night's Debate

Alan Brinkley is the provost and a professor of history at Columbia University, as well as a National Book Award-winning author.

I doubt the first debate will make a decisive difference. There were no "There you go again" moments and no terrible blunders. Both candidates stuck to their talking points, and there was nothing very new about the debate other than the opportunity to contrast the two men more vividly than has been possible before.

On the substance, I think Obama won, but not by much. He had a crisp and effective answer to the key question about the economy. McCain floundered and ended up talking about earmarks, as if he were running for the Senate. On the war, while I think Obama was correct in what he said, McCain seemed more confident.

But substance, as we should know by now, has never been the chief determinant of how the public evaluates debate. From John Kennedy to Al Gore, most debates have been more important for style than substance, and for likeability than intelligence. And that is why this debate seems to me to be something close to a wash. McCain on the whole looked confident and avuncular. Obama seemed intelligent and articulate. McCain sometimes appeared too aggressive and angry, and Obama sometimes was too cool and professorial.  

Fortunately for McCain, his "suspend the debates" stunt--which could have been portrayed as (and in reality was) an embarrassing failure--seemed to play no role in last night's debate. But I do think that barring some startling turnaround in the next few weeks, the economy will continue to dominate the campaign--and McCain remains the weaker candidate on that issue.