A calm and unruffled Senator Obama, who leads by about five percentage points in national polls and is ahead in virtually all the battleground states, kept Mr McCain at arm’s length during a stilted debate in which 11 undecided voters asked the questions.
Polls taken immediately afterwards and focus groups all gave Mr Obama an advantage. A CNN national poll registered Mr Obama as the winner by 54 to 30 points and a CBS national poll had Mr Obama edging out his rival by 39 to 27 points.
Mr McCain unveiled an ambitious new $300 billion dollar plan to buy up bad mortgages from home owners who can’t afford them and re-negotiating them based on the values of the houses.
But the scheme, which he did not flesh out with details, did not create much of an impact and could well come under fire from conservative Republicans. Mr McCain, 72, appeared frustrated, tired and tetchy while Mr Obama, 47, came across as more relaxed and youthful.
Mr Obama managed to personalise the economic discussion by remarking that drivers in Nashville, Tennessee, where the debate was held, were paying $3.80 a gallon to fill their tanks.
"I understand your frustration and your cynicism, because while you’ve been carrying out your responsibilities – most of the people here, you’ve got a family budget. If less money is coming in, you end up making cuts. Maybe you don’t go out to dinner as much. Maybe you put off buying a new car. That’s not what happens in Washington."
He also scored well on foreign policy, tackling head on Mr McCain’s jibe that he did not know enough about world affairs to be president. “Senator McCain, in the last debate and today, again, suggested that I don’t understand.
“It’s true. There are some things I don’t understand. 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.”
He also pounced when Mr McCain said that a president had to “speak softly” to allies. “Now, Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I’m green behind the ears and, you know, I’m just spouting off, and he’s sombre and responsible."
Mr McCain interjected: "Thank you very much." Then Mr Obama responded: "Senator McCain, this is the guy who sang, ‘Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran’, who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don’t think is an example of ‘speaking softly’. This is the person who, after we had – we hadn’t even finished Afghanistan, where he said, ‘Next up, Baghdad’."
There was also a bad moment for Mr McCain when he referred to Mr Obama in a dismissive manner as “the one” – a phrase some commentators seized on as a racial slight. Talking about a Bush administration bill, Mr McCain gestured towards Mr Obama and said: “You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one."