- 8 Oct 08, 06:32 AM GMT
NASHVILLE, TN: The weather here was dramatic all evening - cloying heat, grey-black storm clouds, pounding rain. It was shame, then, that the presidential debate failed to light up the sky tonight.
It seemed to me at the time that the previous encounter between Senators McCain and Obama had generated more heat than illumination: partisan supporters were enthused, but no-one I met in Oxford had been won over to one side or another.
It was a different story in Nashville. Wavering voters were starting to make up their minds. But the deeply committed seemed disappointed by what, to me, also seemed a largely inconclusive stand-off.
Cynthai Doney, a 44-year-old professional counsellor, already knew which way her ballot would be cast. Stronly pro-life, she was right behind McCain.
But the debate itself left her feeling subdued. Neither nominee, she felt, had succeeded in energising the audience.
"At first McCain seemed a little nervous, a little stiff - although he became more relaxed by the end," she told me. "Obama's a great speaker, but I don't think he gave a great speech tonight.
"I wouldn't have been able to pick a winner if I were undecided."
Shawanda Clay, 35, felt much the same. The nurse practitioner was as passionate in her support of Obama as Cynthia was in her enthusiasm for his Republican rival.
But Shawanda felt that the evening had been an anti-climax, too.
"It wasn't as exciting as everyone thought it was going to be," she admitted. "It was very low-key.
"I would have liked them to talk more about health care - that's an issue that really drives me. But I guess that's a problem with the format rather than the speakers themselves."
You didn't have to be a cynic, though, to appreciate that the views of people like Shawanda and Cynthia - whose votes were already in the bag - were less important to the rival campaigns than those of the hitherto uncommitted.
And it was the latter category that seemed to respond better to the debate, at least according to my entirely unscientific straw poll.
Bobby Foglia, 21, was just the kind of first-time voter that both candidates were desperate to reach. Having grown up in marginal Pennsylvania with a Republican mother and a Democratic father, he had been undecided before the encounter began.
By the time it was over, however, he had been won over by McCain.
"I thought that McCain performed very well compared to Obama," Bobby said. "He was better at relating to people. The way kept saying, 'My friends, my friends': I liked that.
"Obama was very professional, but to me he didn't reach out so well."
On the other hand, though, you had 18-year-old Isaac Gonzalez. He'd also been unsure who to support before the contest, leaning only slightly towards the Democratic candidate.
After watching what he saw as a more assured performance from the Illinois senator, however, he had moved decisively into the blue camp.
"He was much more concise and presidential. I'd say that I've now got a substantial amount of confidence in my vote for Obama.
"I thought McCain came over as passive-aggressive in his arguments and phrasing - he'd begin every answer by talking about what Obama thought. It didn't leave him time to explain what he would do."
In the days to come, polls may show a drift of independent voters to one candidate or another. I wonder, though, how much that will owe to the debate. Americans now don't have long to make up their minds, after all.
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