WASHINGTON, September 27- Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain landed a knockout blow in their first presidential debate late Friday, but the youthful Democrat may have just scored a points victory by standing his own.,
Each campaign trumpeted favorable reviews from the instant punditry of television talking heads as Republican McCain played his strong suit of national security and Democrat Obama hammered his theme of the economy.
But independent analysts said that on balance, Obama may have nosed ahead by crossing the most important threshold for voters only just tuning in to the marathon campaign — looking presidential.
Indiana University political scientist Marjorie Hershey was reminded of the 1980 election between an enfeebled Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, and his less experienced Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan.
"A lot of Americans in 1980 were very tired of the Carter administration but did not know Ronald Reagan well enough to feel confident that he could take over as president," she told AFP.
"By his debate performance, a lot of viewers apparently felt persuaded that Reagan was sufficiently presidential that he could function at that level.
"My suspicion is that may have happened tonight with a lot of people who are sick of the (President George W.) Bush administration but were just not sure about Obama’s credentials."
Commentators said Obama, 47, held his own on national security against his more experienced rival McCain, 72, and scored with repeated upper-cuts that portrayed the Iraq war as the defining failure of Republican foreign policy.
McCain in turn parried with reminders of his younger Democratic challenger’s novelty on the national scene, at one point attacking Obama’s "naivete" and insisting he himself did not need "on-the-job training."
But Obama, again and again, tapped into deep-seated unhappiness with Bush’s record to make McCain look guilty by association.
The Wall Street crisis was the "final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies" and through the Iraq invasion, Bush and McCain had let Al-Qaeda renew its dangerous tentacles in Afghanistan, the Democrat said.
Circumstances favored Obama as the financial hurricane overshadowed the debate run-up — and McCain’s involvement in the event at the University of Mississippi remained in doubt just hours beforehand.
While the debate was meant to be focussed on foreign policy, the opening exchanges were all related to the economic crisis and round-the-clock negotiations in Congress on a huge bailout package.
The tale of the tape in an instant telephone poll by CNN and Opinion Research Corp. scored a decisive win for Obama among 524 debate watchers. Asked who did the better job, 51 percent said Obama and 38 percent said McCain.
The Democrat had a yawning lead of 58-37 percent on handling the economy, and a narrower edge of 52-47 percent on the Iraq war, the pollsters said.
Another snap poll by CBS News and Knowledge Networks of about 500 uncommitted voters had 39 percent saying Obama was the winner against 24 percent for McCain. A total of 37 percent said it was a draw.
"At the beginning, on the economy, Obama seemed a lot stronger and more focussed in terms of tying McCain to Bush," Dartmouth College professor of government Linda Fowler said.
"To some extent people’s perceptions will be shaped by which half of the debate they paid more attention to, although McCain came away still with national security as his strong suit," she said.
"Obama did a pretty good job of making the claim that McCain and the Bush administration were so obsessed by Iraq that they missed the big picture.
"But at the same time McCain’s closing remarks about being ready to lead were simple, from the heart, and quite effective."
Michael Traugott, an expert in communication studies at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies, said: "If people were looking for a knockout punch in this debate, it wasn’t delivered.
"But since foreign policy was meant to be McCain’s area of strength, it was important for Barack Obama to show that he had competence and a command of the facts in the main issues for American policy around the world," he said.
"He passed that threshold test."