Much as in the first debate, style tended to trump substance, while, so to speak, Rome burns.
Going in, Obama needed to show himself poised and presidential. And indeed, he seemed more self-assured, less prone to salt his answers with the arcana of policy that glaze voters' eyes.
McCain once again sought, with limited success, to sever himself from the failed policies of the Bush administration, while casting his opponent as Obama the Unready and himself as the sage and seasoned statesman.
The problem for McCain, of course, was that he has taken a fairly precipitous slide in the polls since the first debate on Sept. 26 and his decision to go deeply negative, using running mate Sarah Palin to take the wildest and nastiest swings (Obama, friend of terrorists).
At the least, McCain needed to regain lost ground and, if possible, win big. He did neither. Rather, he seemed more somber this time, less spirited on the attack. By contrast, Obama's confidence made the Democratic nominee appear less defensive, less willing to agree with McCain on points of policy. Best of all for Obama, there were no game-changing gaffes.
The evening produced two major disappointments. Not even a different format, that of a town-hall meeting, could bring freshness to the debate. Both candidates mostly relied on familiar refrains largely lifted from the stump speeches they've been delivering for months.
Specific questions from the audience - many of them excellent - drew too many imprecise answers.
The other disappointment was the candidates' unwillingness, or inability, to adapt their answers to the most dire financial crisis in America since the Great Depression. What would they do as president to deal with this singular catastrophe?
Obama waxed ethereal, saying Americans would respond to the challenge as they had to John Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon within a decade. Obama sees no great need to sharply reduce policy initiatives in his administration.
Not to be outdone in can-doism, McCain said, "We can attack energy and health care at the same time. We're not rifle shots here. We're Americans!"
Yes, Americans in a crisis that deepens by the day. Americans who need to hear more than rhetoric from their next president.