IT WAS officially Round 2, but last night's second presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in Nashville felt at times more like Round 14 of a heavyweight prize fight, with both contenders slogging toward a decision.
The 90-minute showdown was solid and informative at times, with no major gaffes or defining moments, but both candidates lacked passion over the financial crisis that is rocking Wall Street and the nation, and they refrained from the nastiness that has dragged down the campaign in recent days.
Polls in recent days have shown Democrat Obama taking a lead in national surveys and in battleground states, and there were times last night when it seemed like he was grinding out the clock. The GOP's McCain worked at showing more empathy and succeeded at times, but he didn't have a "game changer" for a race that may be drifting away from him.
Here are some of the highlights:
News of the night, No. 1: The Arizona senator came out of the box with a new proposal on the economic crisis, that the U.S. Treasury consider buying up the mortgages of the most distressed homeowners and then renegotiating them to reflect the current reduced price of the home.
But McCain offered no specifics on what the idea would cost or how to pay for it, and the idea rated poorly with GOP voters in an MSNBC focus group of voters who watched the debate in suburban King of Prussia. Right-wing bloggers also blasted the concept.
News of the night, No. 2: Obama had something of a Howard Beale in "Network" mad-as-hell moment when he sought to channel voter rage at Wall Street and corporate CEOs, saying that execs of bailed-out insurance giant AIG should be fired and be asked to pay back their hefty compensation.
Nonpersons: William Ayers, former Weather Underground 1960s radical and casual Chicago acquaintance of Obama, was the subject of harsh accusations on the campaign trail from McCain running mate Sarah Palin over the last two days, but he wasn't mentioned last night.
For that matter, neither was Sarah Palin.
Words that would get you blitzed in the presidential debate drinking game: Obama: "Look," "Pak-i-stan," "Bush," "Bomb bomb bomb Iran." McCain: "My friends," "Energy independence," "Nuclear," "Tom," "People are hurting."
Condescension watch: Coverage of September's first debate focused heavily on McCain's failure to make eye contact with Obama, which was a nonissue in the town- hall format, in which one often stood behind the other. However, McCain may have rekindled the issue when, in comparing his vote on an energy bill to Obama's, referred to the Illinois senator as "that one."
Bad-timing award: When asked who he thought would make a good Treasury Secretary, McCain floated the names of billionaire Warren Buffet - an Obama supporter - and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, a McCain supporter. But it came on the day that eBay announced it is laying off 1,000 full-time staffers.
Most overwrought pronunciation of the night: The academic way that Obama says "Pakistan," with a soft "a" - reminscent of a 1980s "Saturday Night Live" sketch in which newscasters over-pronounced "Managua, Nicaragua."
Best McCain line of the night: "I've got some news, Senator Obama: The news is bad. So let's not raise anybody's taxes, my friends, and make it be very clear to you I am not in favor of tax cuts for the wealthy."
Best Obama line of the night: "I don't understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us."
Weird joke of the night: When McCain said that some insurance plans pay for "hair transplants - I might need one of those myself." Was that also a dig at follically challenged Joe Biden? The audience didn't laugh at that - or any other quips.
Stars of the night: The citizen questioners in the audience at Nashville's Belmont University, who voiced the confusion and hurt that Americans are feeling over the economic crisis. Neither candidate seemed to provide the answers they were truly seeking. *