Barack Obama may have come a step closer to the White House if the verdict of Americans on his second televised debate with John McCain, in which both candidates outlined plans to steer the US out of a looming global economic crisis and a recession, is any measure.
Over the past week Mr Obama has made substantial gains in national surveys and in the main battleground states. Rather than reverse that trend on Tuesday night, the Democratic senator reinforced it.
A CNN poll gave him a margin of 54 per cent to 30 per cent, and 64 per cent declared that they had a favourable opinion of him, up 4 percentage points from before the debate. A post-debate poll of undecided voters by CBS News declared Mr Obama the debate winner by 40 per cent to 26 per cent.
America's sombre economic mood was reflected in the serious tone of the encounter in Nashville, which produced few fireworks for the tens of millions of viewers. The audience of just 80 independent voters watched in silence, without applause or laughter.
Both men maintained a veneer of civility in the so-called "town hall" style meeting, which was Senator McCain's favoured format. They refrained from the personal attacks their teams have been loudly making on the campaign trail. And Mr McCain did not even mention the name of his running-mate, Sarah Palin, who has assailed Mr Obama's links to a 1960s radical.
But the Arizona senator singularly failed to land any substantive blows. He was agitated at times and referred at one stage to Mr Obama as "that one" while jabbing his finger at him during a testy exchange over energy policy.
"By the way, my friends, I know you grow a little weary of this back and forth: there was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate, loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney," Mr McCain said, revealing his boiling indignation with his opponent. "You know who voted for it? You might never know.
"That one," he said, jabbing his arm towards Mr Obama, before adding: "You know who voted against it? Me."
A moment like this could damage Mr McCain, if uncommitted voters judge that he was being less than respectful to his rival.
On the economy, neither candidate had solutions equal to the spiralling crisis, which both described as the worst since the Great Depression. But, despite a populist pledge by Mr McCain that, if elected, he would buy up bad mortgages and offer them back to householders at affordable prices, Mr Obama was more sure-footed on how the terrifying problems of the global economy had come about.
He laid much of the blame at the door of Republican policies of deregulation, which he said Senator McCain had championed. He repeatedly linked his opponent to the Bush administration's handling of America's indebtedness.
On foreign policy, Mr McCain attacked the Democratic senator as naive for declaring in advance that he would send US troops to hunt Osama bin Laden inside Pakistani territory with or without Islamabad's agreement. To make his point, Mr McCain invoked his political hero. "Teddy Roosevelt used to say 'walk softly, talk softly, but carry a big stick'. Senator Obama likes to talk loudly," he said.
Because of the relaxed town hall format it was more difficult for Mr McCain to deliver a sustained attack on his opponent and make a convincing case that he lacks the experience to be president. Instead, Mr Obama managed to explain the economic crisis in simpler language. He spoke of the rising price of petrol, saying "you're paying $3.80 (£2.20) here in Nashville." His opponent meanwhile adopted the tone of the elder statesman speaking in senatorial language as he paced the red-carpeted stage and repeatedly addressed the audience with his trademark "my friends".
Voters' thoughts: The Independent's focus group
We are looking for a leader, and I didn't see one last night. McCain had at least a new idea, on the government buying mortgages, but it is a difficult concept and his message seemed garbled.
Renee Van Vechten
A self-proclaimed maverick needed to set himself above and apart, and instead he appeared yet more erratic. The race appears at this moment to be Obama's to lose.
Laura De Busk
Obama related well to Americans by focusing on the middle class. McCain also did a good job, but if he needed a game-changing moment to shift the momentum, he did not accomplish that.
Same shit, different day. Direct answers to questions are so rare that I have given up on ever knowing what a candidate thinks on an issue. I have decided it will be a waste of my time to watch further "debates".Reuse content