John McCain failed to stop his Democratic rival Barack Obama’s momentum in a debate which offered only an occasional direct confrontation between the two men, according to a post-debate poll by CNN.
The “worst financial crisis since the Great Depression” dominated the encounter, which also saw the two candidates trade blows on foreign policy, the Iraq war and health care.
A CNN poll taken immediately after the debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, showed 54% thought Mr Obama won, compared with 33% for Mr McCain.
Some US political pundits said the Republican often came across as condescending, suggesting voters may not have heard of the US mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and at one point referring to Mr Obama as “that one” when talking about an energy bill.
With just four weeks to go until the election, the Arizona senator needed a game-changing performance in the debate to get his campaign back on track after its stumbling response to the global financial crisis, but there was little sign of it.
“What McCain needs to regain his balance is to persuade voters that he has a cogent, coherent economic proposal and a command over this dominant issue,” the Los Angeles Times said. “He did not deliver either Tuesday night.”
It went on: “His strategic goal – to run as the more experienced, worldly and wiser candidate – is undermined by an electorate stubbornly unwilling to regard him as more presidential than his rival.
“And his tactical response, to challenge Obama with increasing ferocity, is only making matters worse.”
But it added that the debate offered “clarifying moments”.
“McCain views healthcare as a responsibility; Obama sees it as a right,” it said. “That is a genuine distinction upon which voters may hang a choice.”
For the New York Times, the aggressively negative turn taken by the campaigns last weekend – when Mr McCain’s team accused their rival of “palling around with terrorists” and the Obama campaign brought up the Keating Five scandal of the 1980s – dominated its thoughts.
“It is a sorry fact of American political life that campaigns get ugly, often in their final weeks,” the newspaper said.
“But Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin have been running one of the most appalling campaigns we can remember.”
It said Mr Obama “has taken some cheap shots” but “there is no comparison”.
“Ninety minutes of forced cordiality did not erase the dismal ugliness of his campaign in recent weeks, nor did it leave us with much hope that he would not just return to the same dismal ugliness on Wednesday,” it said.
It said it “certainly expected better” from Mr McCain who “once showed withering contempt for win-at-any-cost politics” after being “driven out of the 2000 Republican primaries by this sort of smear, orchestrated by some of the same people who are now running his campaign”.
It said it “should not be surprised” and added: “But surely, Mr McCain and his team can come up with a better answer to that problem than inciting more division, anger and hatred.”
The New York Post said the debate was “an unenlightening night”.
On the economy and healthcare, it said: “(Both) McCain and Obama are responsible for explaining how much their outlandish proposals would cost, and who would pay for them.”
It also noted “Obama again seemed out of his depth” on foreign affairs.
The Washington Post said the debate “was civil and substantive, but sometimes sounded as if it were taking place before the financial crisis”.
“Neither candidate came to grips with the constrained new reality that the next president will inherit; all campaign proposals are to some extent pipe dreams, but the financial crisis puts real limits on what either candidate would be able to achieve as president,” it said.
But it added: “These are two serious, thoughtful nominees who embody differing ideologies but who are – or could be – a tribute to their parties and their country.”
The New York Daily News said: “Neither man has displayed the kind of confidence-building leadership the country will need in the White House. They must do better – quickly.”
In Mr Obama’s home state of Illinois, the Chicago Tribune said the discussion was “as sober, as bracing, as the nation’s current mood”.
“McCain’s extensive experience in foreign and military affairs was evident, as was Obama’s commitment to multilateral diplomacy,” it said.
“After we vote on November 4, one of them will be handed that challenge. Tuesday night we learned anew that, no matter who prevails, we’re a fortunate people.”
And in Mr McCain’s home state, the Arizona Republic said: “We can fairly report that Republican candidate John McCain was energetic, informed and prepared to knock his opponent’s positions on key issues such as tax policy and health-care reform.
“We also can fairly report that Democrat Barack Obama did pretty much the same. He was composed, informed and eager to strike back at McCain’s occasional attacks. Well, more than occasional attacks, actually.”
But it said Mr McCain “had more than one opponent on the floor” and “was engulfed by the same swirling forces that are absorbing every one of us” as it referred to the US financial crisis.
“McCain needs something more,” it said. “Some greater game-changing argument or position that we did not see last night. Obama needed only to appear presidential. And that he did.”