Barack Obama made strides toward easing voters' concerns about his candidacy in Tuesday night's debate. John McCain, despite raising pointed questions about his rival's readiness, didn't create the game-changing moment he'll need between now and Election Day.
There are still four weeks to go, but time is running out on McCain.
Poised and confident, Obama directly confronted his greatest hurdle — and did it by turning the tables on McCain during a foreign policy question.
"Now Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears and I'm just spouting off and he's somber and responsible," Obama said as McCain laughed and said: "Thank you very much."
Obama then bluntly challenged McCain's steadiness: "This is a guy who sang bomb, bomb, bomb Iran, who called for the annihilation of North Korea — that I don't think is an example of speaking softly."
Proposes mortgage program
Needing a big moment — he trails in key state polling — McCain tried to stage one by saying he would order the Treasury Department to enact a sweeping $300 billion program to shield homeowners from mortgage foreclosure. The drama was lost in part because he didn't provide details, leaving those to his aides to deliver in a stream of news releases.
Said McCain: "It's my proposal. It's not Sen. Obama's proposal."
True, though Obama said last month that such a plan should be considered.
Later, McCain seemed unwilling to utter Obama's name, referring to him at "That one" while debating a vote on an energy bill.
The debate boiled down to two questions: Could Obama close the sale? Could McCain change the game? The answer to both is no, but Obama may have helped himself the most — if only because he came into the debate ahead and with a political landscape dramatically in the Democrats' favor.
The candidates debated on a day in which stocks plunged anew and a Gallup Poll showed that just 9 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the right direction. Nearly seven in 10 voters say the economy is their biggest issue.
With that bleak backdrop, Obama and McCain each sought to show he alone would change Washington. In the only town hall of the debate series, both candidates tried to show empathy with the dismayed public. And they tried to go negative without being obvious about it.
"This is a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by President Bush and supported by Senator McCain," Obama said of the economic crisis, the first of several times when the Democrat linked McCain to the unpopular president.
McCain, in turn, raised questions about the first-term Illinois senator's readiness to serve, saying: "We don't have time for on the job training, my friend."
Even with the political environment tailor made for a Democratic victory, Obama has had trouble convincing skeptics who have difficulty imagining the 47-year-old freshman senator, vying to be the first black president, in the White House. A recent AP-Yahoo News poll showed that doubts about Obama's competency loomed even larger than the color of his skin.
Thus, Obama looked to use the debate as an opportunity to try to reassure voters, connect with them — and solidify his advantage. He was out of his scripted comfort zone in the town-hall style confrontation, though he avoided a major misstep that could have set him back.
Facing dwindling options in a strikingly poor environment for Republicans, McCain sought to shift the dynamics of the race in his favor in large part by stoking voters' concerns about Obama, raising questions about how well the public knows him and questioning his readiness to serve.
But he wasn't nearly as pointed as he and running mate Sarah Palin had been in recent days.
In talking about the mortgage crisis, McCain referred to "Senator Obama and his cronies and his friends in Washington" who supported "risky loans." He also referred to Obama's "secret that you don't know" and claimed that it was that he would increase taxes on 50 percent of small business revenue.
In the end, Obama didn't seal the deal and McCain didn't have a game-changing moment.
They'll have another chance in eight days.