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First thoughts: Nothing changed

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Carrie Dann
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Part three of the four-part debate series is now over, and the one big conclusion is that nothing changed. And nothing changing isn't a good result for McCain. In need of a trajectory-changer (we're trying not to use the word "game"), McCain didn't get it. This now puts pressure on him to make the most of the final debate next week. However, McCain might have lost before the debate ever started -- at 4:00 pm ET Tuesday, when the final curtain fell on another horrible day on Wall Street. And now the Fed has just cut a key interest rate by half a point to 1.5%.

Interactive: Analyze the debate.  Scan the video by question and keyword.

*** What stood out: As for the actual encounter, a few things stood out. Obama started strong and was surprisingly aggressive with McCain. We don't know that he missed an opportunity in the first 40 minutes of the debate to attack McCain. And yet, despite the attacks by Obama, McCain may end up being viewed as the more negative candidate, since he sounded so defensive early on and he had the awkward "that one" moment. Obama also was more attuned to the format, constantly framing his answers for average or regular voters. To McCain's credit, he got stronger in the second half and really found his groove during the foreign policy portion of the encounter. If this debate had gone another half hour, it would have done McCain some good. He was just getting warmed up.

*** Strongest and weakest moments: McCain's strongest moment came during the Russia question, which also coincidentally was Obama's weakest. And Obama's best moment was on health care, which -- you got it -- was McCain's weakest. McCain's difficulty connecting on the economy probably explains why Obama scored better in the post debate polls and focus groups.

Video: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on why viewers are giving Barack Obama high marks in the second presidential debate.

*** Watching the body language: Last night's body language was also fascinating. It appeared Obama, as in the first debate, was more camera-aware during his non-speaking time than McCain. Considering the format and the fact that close watchers of this debate won't have heard anything new from the candidates, the body language portion of the confrontation might be more influential to some viewers. We're wondering if some Obama campaign strategists are regretting their decision to not agree to some joint town halls with McCain sooner. Bottom line: It was great to see the candidates out from behind the podiums; it created a lively exchange even as it came across at times as repetitive.

*** Needing an economic makeover: McCain still has an opportunity to fix his problems on the economy. Obama isn't winning on this issue because he's winning over folks based on this plans; he's winning the economy because of history and because of Bush. The problem for McCain is he isn't connecting. He attempted to start a new debate on a big idea last night regarding the housing issue, but McCain struggled to sell it. His instinct on how to win this thing appears to be right -- he has to win over voters on the economy. Attacking Obama's character can close the gap, but it may not get him over the finish line. Changing the game on the economy is the only way to do that and maybe it's an impossible task for any Republican, let alone McCain.

*** Is this why Obama opted out of public funds? But just like at the vice-presidential debate when we also learned that day that Team McCain was retreating from Michigan, the biggest news yesterday in the presidential race might have come before the debate even started. Interviewed on MSNBC, Obama strategist David Axelrod revealed that 4 million individuals have now donated to the Obama camp. That's up from 2.5 million last month, meaning -- if our math is correct -- that 1.5 million new people gave money to Obama. So how big will Obama's September fundraising haul be? It looks like it might be BIG. Will it top the 100-million mark? (1.5 million new donors at 100 a pop… Well, you get the math.) This all perhaps explains how Obama outspent McCain by a nearly 3-to-1 margin last week, per data from the Wisconsin Advertising Project. Writes the Washington Post's Cillizza, "From Sept. 30 to Oct. 6, Obama spent more than $20 million on television ads in 17 states including more than $3 million in Pennsylvania and more than $2 million each in Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania. McCain in that same time frame spent just $7.2 million in 15 states. Even when the Republican National Committee's independent expenditure spending in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin is factored in (a total of $5.3 million), Obama still outspent the combined GOP forces by roughly $8 million in the last week alone."

*** Biden's back: It's a big day for Joe Biden, NBC's Ron Allen reports. Biden's returning to the trail after spending several days dealing with family matters. And we've been told he's going step up his defense of Barack Obama and himself given the negative tone of the campaign. He's in battleground Florida all day, and then off to Missouri tomorrow. This weekend Biden has a joint event with the Clintons in Scranton, Pennsylvania. This morning, the campaign thrust Biden front and center on the morning shows for post-debate spin. On TODAY, Biden accused McCain and Palin of heading down an ugly slippery slope with the  "character" attacks of recent days.

*** On the trail: McCain and Palin are back on the trail together, holding rallies in Bethlehem, PA and Strongsville, OH. Obama has a rally in Indianapolis. Biden returns to the trail after the death of his mother-in-law, stumping in Florida. And Michelle Obama attends a rally in Keene, NH before heading to New York City to appear on the Daily Show.
 
Countdown to the third presidential debate: 7 days
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 27 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 104 days
 
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