Yes, I think the real winner here was the moderator. Someone finally got the candidates to talk about some of the issues going on and on in the media. They may not be "issue" issues, but I've certainly met more voters talking about Ayers and the VP's attacks than the candidate's health care plans. Maybe a sad commentary on American politics (I'm not totally sure of that) but I do believe most of the people who would be swayed by "real issues" have been swayed.
Meaning that anyone who is concerned enough about health care to vote based on the candidate's stand on it has gone to the trouble of looking it up. Anyone concerned enough by what the candidate's are going to do for education has looked it up. The people who are going to be swayed now are going to be swayed by "non-issue" issues, issues of character and personality, who can keep their cool, who comes off like a jerk or a hero.
A real good example of this is the economy. When the economic apocalypse started, neither candidate was actually saying exactly what they would do. But a combination of knowing Obama's stand anyways (and McCain's stand on deregulation,) as well as the bizarre behavior of John McCain made so many wavering voters run towards Obama.
The previous three debates (including the one between the VP's) had moderators who seemed so concerned about sticking to "serious" topics. I honestly do believe voters have all those serious topics covered now - if they really do care about them.
When you see interviews of undecideds, they are "unsure" about McCain or "don't know if they can trust" Obama. Although the news focus groups interview voters before, and they all talk about wanting to hear more about this issue or that, afterward, you can tell they already know what they stand for. They liked McCain talking about this issue, "but we know how he stands on that, and he wasn't credible."
Because of this, the moderator wins for getting the candidates to talk about attacks in the campaigns, their vice presidents (despite what history has told us, VP's ARE making a difference in this campaign,) and even Roe. v. Wade/ supreme court justices.
I don't mean to say he dumbed down the debate - there was plenty of policy stuff there. But the previous debates have been exercises in how to get the candidates to speak their issue statements out loud.
Some of the credit for making this more of a real back and forth had to go to John McCain - he was out for blood tonight! He didn't get any, but the effort was noticeable and made the debate interesting. I will say, that bit about, "I'm not George Bush" was pretty good. He must have wanted to say that for a while, and it barely came off as pre-prepared.
It would have worked even better had he been directly responding to something Obama had said, instead of "you know that thing you said back there, here's what I got to that." Obama was bound to bring it up again. Clinton was way better at getting the timing for snappy comebacks down.
In any case, I'm glad the debates are over. I don't know that the last one made any difference, except to solidify the character and temperament of the candidates though. I think one moderator had it right, with a description of, first a strong McCain, then slipping into "Cranky McNasty."
So, final score, unruffled, kinda boring guy beats erratic Cranky McNasty... again, but Schieffer steals the win by getting them to talk about what voters are talking about.
Though Joe the Plumber gets an honorable mention.