It’s tempting to the think of a presidential debate as a moment of truth. Advertisements may be pure spin and conventions may be staged, but in a debate it’s mostly about which candidate has superior command of the issues, greater debating skill, and the more winning personality. Everyone recognizes, of course, that expectations factor in, and that the candidate with the lead can “win” the debate by not losing it. But this sort of analysis merely represents a fine-tuning of an underlying result that turns on the debate performance.

In reality, though, a debate performance cannot be divorced from the substantive context of the campaign. Thus, a candidate who is running into a strong headwind throughout the campaign can expect a corresponding headwind during the debate. And a debating style or personality that would meet with approval in one kind of race might be widely disparaged in another.

Consider last night’s debate. As far as I can tell, the pundit class judged John McCain’s performance about as favorably as could be expected. That is, most conservative commentators viewed McCain as the clear victor, while a good number of those in the MSM gave his performance grudging respect. There were dissenting voices. John, for example, thought that McCain was a bit off of form. Even so, he rated the debate as something like a draw, not a clean victory for Obama.

Yet most of the early polls I saw indicated that the public viewed Obama as the winner. Why the apparent disconnect? Because, I think, while commentators tried to focus on how well the candidates debated their respective positions, the rest of the audience focused, naturally enough, on how much they liked those positions.

And that’s where those headwinds enter the picture. The ones McCain confronts have to do with unhappiness over the Iraq war and over the state of the economy. Thus, McCain may have hammered Obama over his opposition to the surge, but if voters think the decision to invade Iraq was more consequential than the decisions that finally seem to have enabled us to succeed there, then Obama will still have the edge. Similarly, no matter how well McCain debates the economy (and here his performance was not that strong), the justified perception that his economic views are closer than Obama’s to those of President Bush’s represent a built-in disadavntage.

The extent to which voters like what they hear also spills over into how they perceive the demeanor of the candidates. I’ve seen enough of these debates to know that a style that appears commanding and presidential in (say) good times may seem arrogant and condescending when times are thought to be bad.

If McCain “lost” last night’s debate, let’s hope that he lost it because he didn’t debate well. Debate performances can improve; just ask George W. Bush. But if McCain out-debated Obama (as I believe he did) but still “lost,” that would be a pretty strong sign that voters just aren’t buying what he’s selling and that, consequently, McCain is destined to be rejected in November.

In that sense, at least, the debate may have been a moment of truth.

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