But as snapshot opinion polls have shown since Friday, the public watching at home fills out their scorecards a bit differently.
In their first debate in Oxford, Mississippi, John McCain was animated, aggressive and at times bold on economic issues (calling for a widespread government spending freeze). He also showcased the depth and breath of his foreign policy knowledge. But while Barack Obama seemed reserved, and not as willing to hit back, the Democratic nominee exemplified a poise and coolness that allowed voters to begin imagining him as a potential Commander in Chief.
Obama said "Sen. McCain is absolutely right," so many times, the McCain camp turned it into a web ad. Oddly enough, McCain controlled the 40 minutes spent on the economy by pounding away at spending while Obama's strongest retort was during the foreign policy section, telling McCain he was "wrong" on Iraq in several ways.
To McCain's credit, he did not look like George W. Bush on that stage. He was feisty, energetic and credibly looked like he wanted to shake things up. On foreign affairs, McCain's initial move was to go on the attack. He tried to paint Obama as stubborn as President Bush for not admitting the surge worked. He attempted to make the case that Obama was too hawkish and a bit naive on how to deal with Pakistan. The Republican nominee also tapped into emotion -- using the story about meeting troops wanting to re-enlist. He then went on to tap into history, talking about his opposition to military intervention in Lebanon in 1983, and closing with, "Tragically I was right."
McCain also mixed his foreign policy critiques with fun but pointed zingers. When Obama suggested McCain has taken his eye off the central front on the war on terror in Afghanistan, McCain fired back, "Maybe you should've went there."
When Obama made his case for meeting with leaders of rogue countries like Iran's Ahmadinejad, McCain first noted he doesn't have a White House visitor schedule yet . . . he then landed an overlooked shot at Obama, "I don't even have a seal yet."
Later, he said, almost mockingly, "So let me get this right, we sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, we're going to wipe Israel off the earth, and we say, 'No you're not,' Oh please."
On Russia, Obama and McCain's responses were glaringly different and telling. Obama rattled off his detailed position on Russia's "unwarranted invasion" of Georgia. It took McCain all of three words to go right after Obama's initial response to the invasion, suggesting he's not tough enough.
If it was a boxing match, McCain landed more blows. But after seeking people's reactions this weekend, I realized that it's not always about the "points" we reporters look for. Only the most partisan Republicans would argue that Obama didn't look ready to be president (Disagreeing on policy is a different matter). He never got rattled and showed he had great command of the large issues. In many ways he stood toe-to-toe with McCain on foreign policy. McCain repeated the phrase that Obama "just doesn't get it." But that's the wrong argument. Obama definitely seemed to "get it," he just dramatically disagrees with McCain over how to "get it." In this sense, Obama easily passed the potential Commander In Chief threshold.
So while on points, it's a narrow win for McCain -- that may not be enough this year. Both of these men had solid performances, and with Obama the slim frontrunner, the positions the two candidates took may be more important than how forcefully they argued them. In this type of environment, that favors Obama.
So when you watch the next debate, think less about keeping score, and watch for either a major gaffe that could instantly cripple a candidacy or a memorable "moment" that transfixes America. Those are more likely to impact the remainder of the campaign, than round-by-round scoring and delcaring a simple "winner" and "loser."