Kerry won, but not by a knockout. That's my experience of the debate: on both style and substance, Kerry came out ahead, but probably not by enough that the media will admit it.
On style, less important to me, but lord knows it's what the media cares about, Kerry, except for his first statement which seemed rushed, was sharp, to the point, in command, and sometimes funny. He used the Vietnam experience effectively, and projected a real air of authority and gravitas - even wisdom - which should make people accept him as "Presidential." People whose only source of information is the right wing cocoon must have been surprised at what they saw.
Bush, on the other hand, was relentlessly on message to the point of parody ("mixed signals", anyone?), and showed enough command of the facts to reassure people who worried that he was a slobbering idiot. But he also had that deer in the headlights look often enough to, maybe, give people pause. I loved his "Iraq... uh, Saddam.... uh, bin Laden" stammering in response to the question about al Qaeda. Bush also came across - to me, anyway - as defensive, whining, petulant, grey, and weak at key points in the debate. On CNN, at least, the camera angle sometimes made Bush look like a hunchback. But who cares what I think? I thought that Bush looked like he was about to collapse into a trembling heat during one of the Gore debates, and look how that turned out (according to the media). Maybe whining, petulant, grey, and defensive is what Americans want from a President?
On substance, I was delighted (for more reasons than you can know) that Kerry included Bush's failure to reach out to the Islamic world in his opening statement, but after that the subject kind of disappeared. Kerry's biggest failure in the debate was his response to Lehrer's question about where exactly Bush had lied - instead of hammering on the current conditions in Iraq compared to Bush's sunny statements, Kerry for some reason went back to the war decision, which I think was a major missed opportunity... which he realized, and tried to compensate for later in the debate, but with less impact. I thought that Kerry did a great job of hammering Bush on bin Laden, nuclear proliferation, homeland security, and North Korea, and effectively offered an alternative - the "four words: more of the same" was a good sound byte.
Bush did exactly what we expected, and didn't make any serious gaffes that would be accepted as such by the mainstream media or most swing voters. He hit his themes, and I'm sure his partisans were reasonably impressed - though again, the tremulous and disconnected nature of his comments really struck me.
On Iraq, Kerry was very strong, and I thought he did a great job of repeatedly arguing the need to win and the impossibility of Bush doing so. He didn't do as well as I had hoped in nailing Bush on his "fantasy world of spin"... that should have been there, again and again.
Lehrer was pretty good throughout, although he asked two questions which were embarrassingly, horrifyingly gift wrapped for Bush. The first, "would electing Kerry make another 9/11 more likely," should on its own be enough to have Lehrer banned from any debate moderation for the rest of his life. But Bush tread surprisingly cautiously here, and Kerry responded effectively. Lehrer's second doozy - "are there character issues" - was so absurd that even Bush didn't know what to do with it.
What else? What was up with Bush harping on and on about what "hard work" it was to be President? If he's that put out by the hours, maybe he should just concede the election and go home?
I thought that Kerry's "the President said that the enemy attacked us... but that wasn't Saddam, it was Osama bin Laden" was the closest thing to a knockout punch in the debate, but Bush didn't get counted out so it's just another point.
I couldn't believe that it was BUSH who brought up the Khan network in Pakistan - Kerry should have nailed him on that one.
And Bush kept repeating Kerry's "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time" line... but if you agree with Kerry on this point then this actually helps Kerry. They must have focus grouped it.
Democracy hardly came up at all, except in Lehrer's last question about Russia (which Bush completely punted) and in occasional vapid boilerplate from Bush.. so much for the grand neo-Reaganite forward strategy of freedom.
And what the hell is the world coming to when George Bush is claiming that bringing the world together and leading alliances is a vital task for the President... and that this is somehow a point in his favor! Strange times...
Okay... I guess I'll go read the spin now to find out what "really" happened!. The only reaction commentary I've seen was 2 minutes on CNN, where Greenfield seemed quite upset to report that Kerry had actually done pretty well and quoted a "conservative blog". But then I left. So excuse me if I get the spin wrong here... this is just me watching the debate.