From NBC's Chuck Todd
This was not a good debate for Obama, period. But it wasn't a great debate for Clinton either. Of course, that may not matter to Team Clinton. In a twp-way debate, it's not about which candidate narrowly wins -- but which candidate gets pummeled in the post-debate reviews. And Obama will get pummeled because well he did get pummeled, a little bit by Clinton and a little bit by the moderators.
In the first 40 minutes of the debate, most of the questioning was on Obama's negatives (except for a lone Bosnia-sniper question to Clinton) and that's what helped create what was a near disastrous performance by Obama in those first 40 minutes. He was weak in a lot of his answers on his personal negatives. (Did he really compare Tom Coburn to a one-time '60s radical/terrorist?) Clinton, meanwhile, piled on, particularly (and surprisingly, actually) on Ayers. While I'm not sure if Clinton's piling on ever is good for her in the long run -- see her current poll standing -- it created some post-debate issues for Obama. Many news organizations will feel compelled to do Ayers stories in the next few days. While some may question the fairness and relevancy of the Ayers issue, it's not going to be good for Obama.
This debate is going to lead a lot of Obama supporters to ratchet up the calls on Clinton to either withdraw or tone down the attacks. Clinton supporters will point to this debate as proof that he's not yet ready for the general, that's why she should stay in, and that's why superdelegates should overturn the winner of pledged delegates.
Overall, with the spotlight on him very bright, Obama didn't step up. He got rattled early on and never picked his game back up. Clinton wasn't very warm (outside of he first few minutes), but she didn't have the spotlight on her very bright. And as we've noted in "First Thoughts" quite a few times, whenever the spotlight is on one candidate, the other seems to benefit. Tonight, the spotlight was on Obama, and for a short period of time, I expect Clinton to benefit. But the question is whether she can sustain any benefit since as the negativity goes on, she pays a bigger price than Obama. Let's see what the PA Dem voting public decides in six days. A big Clinton victory and this debate will be seen as an important turning point, a narrow victory (less than five points) and she could find herself facing more calls to get out.
Could tonight's true winner be John McCain? We're betting that's the unanimous pundit scoring tonight.