MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell and Adam Verdugo report on a Missouri focus group they covered watching last night's debate: "Voters in the focus group they did not like the John McCain that showed up. The Republican failed to convince independents in this bellwether state, and the attacks on Obama may have backfired. We brought together 27 voters: 10 Democrats, nine independents, and eight Republicans. At the end of the debate 20 said it was Obama who had won the debate. McCain's repeated negative attacks turned off the independents, according to our survey with dial testers or "perception analyzers." When McCain brought up Obama's controversial relationship with the 1960's radical Bill Ayers, the line measuring independent reactions plummeted into negative territory."
"McCain's best moment was when he focused on policy, specifically finding alternative sources of energy. His ratings with all voters, including Democrats, improved when he mentioned the need to develop wind, solar, and nuclear energy sources. Obama also scored well with all the voters when he too mentioned ending our dependence on foreign oil."
"Our survey was indicative as to why McCain is having trouble connecting with voters in these final three weeks of the campaign. They want a focus on the issues and they don't like gimmicks. McCain clearly went into tonight's debate trying to score points with working class voters by telling the 'Joe the Plumber' story. But interestingly, the voters in our focus group didn't like the story. One Republican, Marc, said he'd heard enough of 'Joe the Plumber' and 'Joe Six-Pack.' John, an independent, said he didn't get the story because he didn't know any plumbers making more than $250,000 per year. And Dave, a Democrat, said he was disappointed that McCain was using a voter Obama had met with to score a political point, instead of talking about a voter McCain had met with."
"Finally, we tested voters reactions pre and post debate. Independents before the debate said they were slightly more comfortable with McCain as president. But after the debate, independents were much more comfortable with Obama as president. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being most comfortable:
-- Obama comfort as president before the debate: 6.2
-- Obama comfort as president after the debate: 7.4
-- McCain comfort as president before: 6.4
-- McCain comfort as president after: 4.3."
The Washington Post's Tom Shales calls McCain's line on Obama comparing him to Bush the best one of the night. But he also says that McCain and his body language didn't fair well from the split screen on TV. "On the split screen, viewers could see Obama laughing at charges made by McCain, a reaction that did seem to diminish the charges. Viewers also could see McCain looking somehow inflated and aloof. Sometimes he struck such a lofty pose that he could have been posing for a spot on Mount Rushmore. Other times, he looked as though he might explode."
Writes the New York Times' Stanley: "It was Mr. McCain's last chance to cast doubt on his opponent's character and credentials, and he threw the kitchen sink at him — along with the plumber. Mr. McCain invoked class war, culture war and the Iraq war. He cast himself as a victim of a Democratic attack machine, calling Representative John Lewis's reference to former Gov. George Wallace of Alabama in criticizing the McCain-Palin campaign for stirring up the crowds 'so hurtful.' They were seated, and this time, Mr. McCain made a point of looking at Mr. Obama, if often with a disdainful smirk and roll of the eyes. He kept taking out his pen to write on his yellow pad, almost as though it were a surrogate for reaching across and throttling the younger man he does not think should be challenging him because, as his aides put it, he hasn't bled."
The Boston Globe's Canellos writes that McCain was "barely hiding his disdain for" Obama, but called Obama "sometimes too cool" and "seemed more amused than offended" by McCain's attacks.