Who won the town hall debate?

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msnbc hosts and commentators reacted on-air following the town hall debate between Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain. Below, are some of the highlights of their responses.

Chris Matthews
This debate had a lot more substance than you could have imagined and not as much of the character attacks that we feared would overtake this debate.

McCain on Obama, brought up taxes and said, “You can’t trust this guy. He lies.” He made the argument that we’ve seen different incarnations of Obama’s tax plan, and that Obama was not leveling with voters that the economy is bad.

Barack Obama, meanwhile, talked about lobbyists and the evil thereof, presumably alluding to the Keating Five.  He also made news by going after AIG  and how they spent $400,000 on a luxury retreat in California. Obama now wants them to give the money back to the government, if only from that junket and even wants all their executive fired. 

It was interesting too since there were bizarre moments when McCain took a shot at the moderator. When asked who he might consider Secretary of the Treasury, out of nowhere, he said, “Not you, Tom.” We have to figure that one out.

They showed a big difference on health care – on whether it’s a right or a responsibility – and I think Obama got that right. We as a society believe we have a right to health care. He had the right definition and he will win that argument.

And to use a Sherlock Homes term, “the dog didn’t bite.” Of the hour and a half of the debate, the assignment that McCain’s running mate has been carrying out for the past four days – associating Obama with Bill Ayers, 26 years later – we saw none of that. It tells us that McCain is not personally comfortable with that kind of attack.

I think that’s going to get a lot of attention: John McCain would not stick it to his rival on the very issue that his campaign has been.

In the end, this debate was not a game changer for Sen. McCain. Because in tenor and appearance, Sen. Obama is gifted. He has a smile that seems to disarm, even when attacks are ferocious. McCain’s smile has a slightly menacing quality which makes you wonder what he’s thinking.

Obama comes across as a debonaire even under attack. I think he’ll stay in the lead.

Rachel Maddow
My impression of the debate was that Obama was not looking for a fight, and Sen. McCain was. Both candidates were confident, but McCain seemed edgy, even taking on the moderator Tom Brokaw, and once interjecting while Obama was speaking.

It left me with the sense that McCain was swinging and missing. 

He may also regret talking about “joking with an old veteran-friend” when he sang “Bomb, bomb Iran,” because his campaign later adopted the same Beach Boys song, “Barbara Ann” as a campaign theme song. So if he meant it as a joke, he has a weird way of showing it.

Pat Buchanan
I agree with some of Rachel’s analysis but not all of it. McCain did come in with more heart and fight. He was the aggressor, as he needed to be, coming in behind the polls.  He threw punches and scored more points. But I also thought that he slipped on some of the punches.

I thought he won last time, and he did better today than he did at the last debate. He smiled, he looked at his opponent, and he talked to the audience.

Obama meanwhile, also came back very tough on some of the attacks and pointed out McCain’s statements on Iran and North Korea right after McCain questioned Obama’s judgment and words.

At times, Sen. Obama seemed a bit too laid back. It felt like he could have responded harder at certain times. But the Democrat was clearly not knocked out. Barack also succeed. He came off as presidential, a cool customer, and unfazed by these attacks. He gave people the assurance that he isn’t “some radical.”

Keith Olbermann
In the history of American politics, you would be hard pressed to find any candidate who after not looking his opponent in the eye in their first debate, finally chose to do so in their  second debate, but only to condescendingly refer to him as “that one.”

You would also be hard pressed to find any candidate who said of Social Security, “We are not going to be able to provide the same benefit for present-day workers… that present day retirees have today.”

You would also be hard pressed to find a candidate who thought he would gain benefit from a format that him walk around a room like an ailing man, winding up walking directly in front of the moderator’s camera as the moderator is trying to say good night.

At least you would be hard pressed to find any candidate who did those things… and wanted to win.

Senator McCain is ostensibly running on the McCain/Palin ticket, but had at least three references to the Connecticut Democrat turned Independent. One would be forgiven for thinking it might be the McCain/Lieberman ticket.

McCain is up to his neck in toxic campaign waste of his own creation. His choice tonight was to (a) attack Obama in person, with sleaze and to risk looking irresponsible and even irrational and (b) if he didn’t attack, he would risk looking hypocritical.

But though McCain’s tone seemed to be vaguely reminiscent of his own campaign’s weekend of descent into the muck, there was not a mention of any of the subjects or people about whom Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin obsessed.

Obama, meanwhile, was playing from ahead: was he cautious or defensive? The Democrat tonight was not just the first candidate to mention 9/11 directly tonight, he was the only candidate who did so. And for a second consecutive debate, Sen. Obama was running against not only Sen. McCain but eight years of President George W. Bush.

Who won the town hall debate?

Updated