THE MUCH-TOUTED, long-awaited debate that almost didn't happen was a mixed bag, but helped Barack Obama more than John McCain.

I say that because on the issue gripping the nation - the state of the economy - Obama seemed better focused, better armed and more aggressive than McCain.

Also, on issues of national security and foreign policy, McCain's acknowledged strengths, Obama did not tank.

But overall there was no big winner, no outstanding moment, not even a particularly memorable line.

Perhaps because the stakes were so high, both candidates decided to play it safe.

If the race is altered at all, the alteration should be slightly in Obama's favor.

The debate, held flush in the middle of a national financial crisis and congressional fight over a controversial Wall Street bailout, took place last night in Oxford, Miss., on the campus of the University of Mississippi.

The first of three scheduled debates, this 90-minute encounter was hosted by Jim Lehrer of PBS's "The Newshour."

Although McCain threatened not to show up unless a congressional deal on an economic fix was reached, he came anyway - in the absence of such a deal.

Maybe he should have showed up a little late.

At the outset, Lehrer went right to the economy, and Obama immediately smacked McCain, calling the crisis of the moment "a final verdict" on the last eight years of President Bush's economic policies, policies McCain supported.

For 40 minutes, Obama and McCain went back and forth on economic issues, rarely answering Lehrer's questions but sniping at each other.

Obama was crisp and sharp. McCain seemed sluggish.

When asked what he would do to improve the economy, for example, McCain actually starting talking about legislative earmarks (pork spent by Congress) and used old lines from past speeches about how he'd veto such spending.

"I will make them famous. You will know their names," he said.

Yeah, yeah, we know.

Earmarks, I'd remind you, amount to $18 billion, less than 1 percent of the federal budget.

So at a time when Congress is looking to pass a $700 billion bailout plan while spending $120 billion a year in Iraq, I'm not sure this retread argument sells.

Obama, by contrast, looked into the camera and noted that McCain wants to cut corporate taxes while he, Obama, wants to "grow the economy from the bottom up" with tax cuts for 95 percent of Americans, anyone making less than $250,000 a year.

To me, that plays.

And when Lehrer pressed for specifics on what a bad economy could do to any economic planning come January, McCain said he'd "cut spending," and Obama said he might have to "delay" some promised initiatives.

When pressed further, McCain suggested a "spending freeze" on everything but national defense and veterans' care, which Obama called "using a hatchet when you need a scalpel."

And that, to me, summed up the night. McCain came across like a hatchet, Obama like a scalpel.

Yet on open questions to both candidates, Obama repeatedly asserted himself and seemed more confident and aggressive.

McCain seemed reluctant to even look at Obama despite Lehrer's efforts to get them to engage. Instead, McCain gave off a heavy-handed sense of disdain that, to me, didn't so play well.

On several foreign-policy issues, McCain labeled Obama "naïve" or suggested he just doesn't get it. It was the say-it-often-enough-maybe-it'll-stick tactic.

But on the war, Obama noted its soon-to-be trillion-dollar cost and the loss of more than 4,000 American lives, looked at McCain and said: "You were wrong" about going into Iraq, about how well it would go and about how the U.S. would be received.

I think Obama cut McCain. And survived the ax. *

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