What a weird event. The only thing clear is that the citizen questioners won. They are much better than the moderators.
As between the candidates, Bush did not self-destruct like in the first debate, but at the price of some strange behavior, notably a very blank expression when he was sitting down and a very odd speaking style for the first hour — shouting, almost ranting. His demeanor in the last half-hour was much better than in the first hour.
The Big Lie made its appearance early and often, as Bush claimed that yesterday’s report by the chief United States weapons inspector for Iraq (the Duelfer Report) somehow vindicated the decision to attack. There basically isn’t a shred of truth to that description of a thousand-page report most voters will never read. If anything, the report showed that the UN sanctions were working better than anyone suspected. And, if there is any justice, Bush's claim that he isn't blocking drug re-importation will come back to haunt him. He did much better in the last 30 minutes, even told what counts as a good joke about timber under the circumstances. [Although fact checking reveals that Kerry was right and Bush wrong on the facts as to Bush's $84 in timber income making him a “small business”.] But Bush flubbed the Patriot Act question badly by patronizing the questioner. And he cratered again when asked if he could identify three mistakes he's made in the last 3.5 years. He couldn't bring himself to come up with even one specific example.
Kerry was forceful, although I find some of his canned speeches a bit robotic, and if I were drinking every time he said he had a Plan I would be blotto if not hospitalized. He started strong (“The military's job is to win the war; the president's job is to win the peace”; slamming Bush on the deficit) but as the night wore on he stumbled a few times, albeit more in style than substance, notably on the stem cell question where he seemed to be fumbling for words. Other than on the abortion issue, Kerry smashed Bush both on Iraq and domestic issues. Even on the abortion issue, Kerry did well in his rebuttal on explaining why parental notification and 'partial birth' abortion were more complex questions than Bush lets on, the only time on that subject when Kerry didn't look uncomfortable.
In general, Kerry looked tired by the end, Bush looked better at the end than the start (when he looked awful). Kerry had better get more rest the day before the third debate. Even so, he won significantly on points — but not by a knockout until and unless the fact checkers hit the Big Lie issue squarely.
But within the four corners of the TV screen (or, in my case, Real Video feed) Bush did better than the first time. Bush looked substantially less stupid, albeit every bit as pig-headed. Some people see that as resolve. Others see it as denial of reality. Kerry's domination on substance was perhaps insufficient to shake the faith of Bush supporters not already scared away from him.
And a lot depends on the factcheckers: if they do as good a job as they did for the first two debates, that should help Kerry substantially.