The campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain are furiously spinning their own versions of the first presidential debate to make the case that their man won. But the initial polls suggest that Obama made the best impression and did the most for his candidacy, at least temporarily.
The latest USA Today/Gallup Poll shows 46 percent of those who watched Friday night say Obama did a better job than McCain while 34 percent said McCain did better. Fifty-two percent said Obama offered the best proposals to solve the nation's problems, compared with 35 percent who preferred McCain's proposals. Three in 10 said their opinion of Obama became more favorable after seeing the debate, while 14 percent said their view of Obama became less favorable, and 54 percent said it made no difference. About 21 percent of those who watched said it gave them a more favorable view of McCain, while 21 percent said less favorable and 56 percent said it didn't change their minds.
A CNN/Opinion Research poll of debate watchers found that 51 percent said Obama did the best job in the debate to 38 percent who preferred McCain. Fifty-eight percent said Obama would better handle the economy, voters' top concern, while only 37 percent said McCain would.
A CBS poll of undecided voters found that 40 percent felt Obama won the debate and 22 percent said it was McCain who won.
In the past, however, surveys have shown that voters' instant opinions can change after they assess media coverage in the days following a debate. As a consequence, both campaigns are working hard to influence that coverage and to put their candidate in the best possible light.
Each candidate followed up by repeating his main talking points from the debate in campaign appearances over the weekend. McCain, a veteran GOP senator from Arizona, attacked Obama, a first-term Democratic senator from Illinois, for lacking experience and for failing to understand major international problems. Obama attacked McCain for being willing to continue President George Bush's unpopular policies on the economy and other issues.
Obama hammered on the economy and said McCain's policies over his 26 years in the Senate, when he was strongly in favor of deregulation, helped create the current financial crisis. "You can't make up for 26 years in 26 days," Obama told a rally in Detroit. "For most of the 26 years, he's been against the common-sense rules and regulations that could have stopped this problem.... His first response to the greatest financial meltdown in generations was a Katrina-like response. He sort of stood there, said, 'The fundamentals of the economy are strong.' "
A McCain spokesman said Obama has a record "of opposing middle-class tax relief" and added: "Barack Obama voted 94 times in just three years for higher taxes." McCain surrogates argued that Obama showed that he isn't ready to be president because he misunderstood many international issues, from the need to win the Iraq war to the folly of meeting with leaders of rogue nations without preconditions.
Neither man made a major error in the debate, and the fact that Obama could demonstrate parity with McCain in discussing complex issues and that he seemed "presidential" probably helped him. That's what happened to Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy in his first debate with Vice President Richard Nixon in 1960. JFK's performance seemed to elevate him to Nixon's stature and helped ease concerns that he was too young and inexperienced—the same charges that Obama is now facing.
Pollsters say McCain's testiness and his repeated attacks on Obama might have hurt him among undecided women voters, who tend to dislike political confrontation.
Obama and McCain have two more debates on their schedule, but on Thursday night, the attention will shift to the vice presidential candidates when Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin go head to head in St. Louis.