Instant polls conducted by the major U.S. television networks at the end of the debate, including a joint CNN/Gallup survey, show most people believe John Kerry performed better than his rival George W. Bush -- but the result was close.
To use a boxing metaphor, no knockout blow was delivered by either side.
In its Friday edition (1 October), "The Los Angeles Times" writes that Kerry "delivered a powerful indictment of Bush's foreign policy record."
"The New York Times" writes that Kerry offered "the strongest and most sensible critique of the administration's actions" to date.
But the newspaper "USA Today" called the result a tie, noting that each man had impressively argued his case. In a sense, both Kerry and Bush surpassed conventional expectations.
Kerry, who is often accused of being too wordy and convoluted in his discussions of policy, was concise and articulate in the debate.
He managed to come across as determined to continue the war on terror -- an important issue for Americans. But at the same time, he made the case that Bush's policies in Iraq have been a costly strategic mistake: "I will hunt down and kill the terrorists wherever they are, but we also have to be smart, and smart means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking it off to Iraq, where the 9/11 Commission confirms there was no connection to 9/11 itself or Saddam Hussein, and where the reason for going to war was weapons of mass destruction, not the removal of Saddam Hussein."
Bush is not widely regarded as a great orator, and his poor syntax is often lampooned by political satirists.
But in yesterday's debate he came across as focused and authoritative. He was at times eloquent in his defense of the war in Iraq and managed to point to some inconsistencies in Kerry's arguments: "[Kerry] says the cornerstone of his plan to succeed in Iraq is to call upon [other] nations to serve. So what's the message going to be? Please join us in Iraq for a grand diversion? Join us for a war that is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time?"
The format of the debate was tightly controlled, with candidates having no more than two minutes to answer questions.
"The New York Times" notes that despite the limitations, the evening was like a "breath of fresh air" compared to the rest of the campaign -- which has been marked by each side leveling accusations at the other, but little substantial discussion.
The debate began at 9 pm on the east coast of the United States, which means that relatively few people in Europe, the Middle East or Central Asia stayed up to watch it live.
One who did was Francois Bonnet, chief editor of the foreign section of the French newspaper "Le Monde." He summed up his reaction this way: "My impression is that the match ended in a rough tie, but that we can see Kerry emerging and perhaps gaining forward momentum. The criticisms of Kerry up to now -- that he was too intellectual and too out of touch with the American electorate, that he was a candidate without any firm beliefs, without any real strategy in terms of foreign policy or precise plan for Iraq -- I have the impression that Kerry succeeded, through the explanations he provided, in readjusting this perception."
German legislator Gernot Erler told the country's N-TV television station he believed Kerry "managed to keep the outcome open in this duel." Since Kerry has recently sunk in most polls, the debate was his to lose. The general consensus, therefore, is that by delivering a strong performance, he has bought himself some time and may halt his falling popularity numbers.
Whether he manages to pull ahead of Bush and claim ultimate victory remains anyone's guess. For some people, neither outcome will prove satisfactory. One woman interviewed on the street in Moscow, who gave her name as Oksana, said she wished for different candidates altogether: "I don't like either of them. Bush's family history is too long and not good for Russia. As for Kerry -- well, his appearance doesn't make me trust him. It would probably be better if there was someone else entirely."