Last night, it was debating by the numbers:

Seven thousand madrassas, 444 John McCain votes, $4 billion tax cuts, five secretaries of state, three weeks in Iraq, seven years in Afghanistan, 3.6 million children covered, tens of thousands suffering in Darfur, droned Joe Biden.

Versus good old folksy straight talk.

". . . I'm going to talk straight to the American people," said Sarah Palin. "Americans are cravin' that straight talk."

We got "greed and corruption on Wall Street," and we got "greed and corruption in Washington," and, "Oh, man, it's so obvious that I'm a Washington outsider and not used to the way you guys operate. . . . Doggone it."

OK, maybe not that straight.

Palin frequently dismissed the question altogether, one time saying to Biden: "I may not answer the questions the way you or the moderator want to hear."

That maneuver may have annoyed viewers already predisposed against her. And she laid it on awful thick, doggone it, in emphasizing her humble outsiderness. Will Rogers, she isn't.

Neither candidate fell into the abysses that had been described for them in advance by pundits.

Though his answers were frequently full of numbers, Biden generally kept them clear. He was not condescending to his opponent, and, from time to time, he found an authoritative forcefulness, backing away from the numbers and hammering home, again and again, with specifics, his assertion that McCain wasn't really a maverick.

Palin made no embarrassing gaffes, and she didn't get lost in her responses. Many observers would give her the bout on points just because of that.

But, once again, the goal in these debates is to win more supporters. Palin, whose major attraction a month ago was that she sounded fresh, didn't move her image forward.

A huge number of people were expected to tune in, perhaps breaking the presidential debate record of 80.6 million set in 1980 and certainly eclipsing the 57 million measured by Nielsen Media Research for last week's presidential debate. That was on Friday, the weeknight when TV use is at its lowest. It's highest on Thursday.

A portion, no doubt, had the same motivation that spurs some viewers of NASCAR. They wanted to see wreckage and mayhem. But all they got was the competitors going 'round and 'round.

And unlike at the auto races, nobody got the checkered flag.

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