The debate tonight should be viewed through the lens of Howard Fineman's column today:
"It's do or die for Sen. John McCain, but he is used to that. The guy's been left for dead -- literally, in one case, and politically in many others -- more times than a pack of General Custers."
8:01 p.m.: "Gerald Ford dead today, at the age of 83 -- eaten by a pack of wolves! Now wait a minute, this is getting ridiculous..."
8:02 p.m.: Will McCain be able to hide his utter disdain for the Hopemonger when they're introduced?
8:03 p.m.: Yes! Wow! McCain looks like a happy dude. Remember, this is his turf...
8:04 p.m.: What kind of a town-hall is this, where follow-up questions aren't allowed? Apparently a town hall Obama can agree to.
8:06 p.m.: Obama's first answer is a simple recap of his stump speech. I'm guessing this will be his strategy tonight. Yawn.
8:06 p.m.: "Sen. Obama, it's good to be with you at a town hall meeting." Veiled zing!
8:07 p.m.: Wow. McCain wants the Treasury Secretary to renegotiate the value of foreclosed-upon homes? He sounds like John Edwards.
8:08 p.m.: McCain is on his game. He actually looked at Obama. McCain looks absolutely in control and, unlike a couple weeks ago, looks like a president.
8:11 p.m.: The first "Sen. McCain is right" of the night. Will there be another seven like last time?
8:12 p.m.: McCain hits Obama -- hard -- and his "cronies" -- about resisting change to Fannie and Freddie in 2006. Over the final three and a half weeks, this could be a winning argument.
8:13 p.m.: McCain's is hitting the home value thing hard. This is his fix.
8:14 p.m.: And Obama's is Republican deregulation. Will this be the fight from here on out?
8:17 p.m.: I've noticed something. Obama is just like Gov. Palin -- when he's confused, it's random bulletpoint after random bulletpoint until the dead space is sufficiently filled.
8:18 p.m.: McCain looks at Obama a second time. Someone's been practicing!
8:24 p.m.: Anyone playing the drinking game based on McCain's use of "my friends?" If so, you're probably on the floor.
8:28 p.m.: Some of these questions are just exceptionally hard. I can't fathom the level of preparation required to sound as well-versed as both men, even when they're grabbing at pet bulletpoints ("middle class" or "earmarks").
8:30 p.m.: McCain goes back and has an excellent re-follow up to a previous question on attacking multiple priorities at once. He's clearly at his best and very much at ease in this format.
8:32 p.m.: Obama sounds considerably clunkier tonight. In a question about sacrifices he'll ask the American people to make in this economic crisis, he's somehow found it relevant to talk about fuel-efficient cars.
8:36 p.m.: Obama is looking at McCain like he's a crazy old uncle. Sort of an amusing shot.
8:40 p.m.: Obama: Cutting taxes on the rich "isn't fair." I'd love a "wealth redistribution" or "class warfare" rebuttal from the Senior Senator, perhaps with a Lenin reference tossed in.
8:41 p.m.: McCain: A few snickers, then, "I'll answer the question."
8:42 p.m.: McCain: Obama never proposed the middle class tax cut he promised. Obama voted to raise taxes or against tax cuts 94 times. That was another hard hit, and I think in (McCain voice) "these tough economic times," this is another winning argument. McCain looks like a different guy tonight.
8:43 p.m.: McCain gets another softball from an unwitting audience member, allowing him to highlight his sharp break from the Bush administration on climate change, and allowing him to hammer Obama on his refusal to support nuclear power. Again: On his game.
8:46 p.m.: Obama agrees with McCain ... that's two!
8:48 p.m.: McCain hits a home run citing his vote against the Bush energy bill "loaded with goodies for the oil companies." Notes Obama voted with the administration -- and you know what? He did it with a smirk on his face.
8:57 p.m.: So Obama admits he's willing to mandate that parents cover their children's health insurance, or they'll be fined? Good grief. If we were in 1940s Russia and Stalin was talking, we wouldn't bat an eye.
8:59 p.m.: On to foreign policy...
9:01 p.m.: There's a glibness and a smoothness to many of McCain's answers that, for some reason, I think is an excellent thing for voters to see tonight.
9:02 p.m.: The third agreement between the candidates, as articulated by the junior senator from the great state of Illinois!
9:04 p.m.: I'm thoroughly impressed by Tom Brokaw's performance as moderator tonight. He followed up a national security question by asking both candidates what the "McCain Doctrine" and the "Obama Doctrine" would be in their respective administrations. He's cut Obama off when he ran over time and followed up on both candidates with tough but fair questions.
9:06 p.m.: McCain's "cool hand at the tiller" line was strong, that the president must evaluate decisions with the ability to beneficially temper the situation, and be cognizant about sending America's most precious asset (American blood) into harm's way. Perhaps McCain's most powerful moment of the entire campaign, and a tremendously a forceful response after a tepid articulation of the Obama Doctrine.
9:10 p.m.: Obama: "We will kill bin Laden." Tough guy!
9:15 p.m.: It could not be more obvious that these two hate each other. The last 8-10 minutes have been mostly McCain and Obama sniping at each other.
9:18 p.m.: It might fly under the radar, but in a foreign-policy response, McCain just uttered the words, "some of which Sen. Obama is correct on."
9:21 p.m.: "For the most part, I agree with Sen. McCain." That's four!
9:23 p.m.: How did Obama and not McCain score the points on tying Russia's aggression to energy independence?
9:25 p.m.: McCain scores back those points by thanking the retired Navy officer and getting a big smile and a handshake in return. This is the side of McCain that undecideds need to see.
9:27 p.m.: Come on, Sen. Obama. Give me fifth "Sen. McCain is right" ...
9:29 p.m.: Darn it.
9:32 p.m.: And the debate ends with a whimper.