I thought Rick Warren did a good job. He was trying to create a civil discourse with both candidates, and I thought he did that to the best of his ability. As to the debate itself, I thought both did a good job, although as far as getting done politically what needed to get done, McCain did better than Obama. Despite the growing consensus in many quarters, I don't think Obama did that bad, although he did make some missteps. First off, let me say that McCain had some implicit advantages in some of the questions.
I don't mean that there was cheating or foul play afoot (I'll deal with that in a moment), but I think certain questions intrinsically favored McCain. The "gut wrenching decision" question is an example. I've no doubt that Obama wrestled with the decision to support the Iraq war, but that doesn't really compare with the decision to turn down early release from that Vietnamese prison camp. It just doesn't. There's really nothing Obama could've done to counter that, although I find myself wishing he had a better answer. In fact, Obama had no real legislative authority to effect the decision to go to war (Not that settling the moral question in one's heart and mind isn't a serious one), so the effect is diminished slightly. Some may balk at this, but I think he should've mentioned his decision to break with his former church. Surely it would've opened him up to more scrutiny by his opponents, but I take Obama at his word on his explanation of why he left Trinity.
The gay marriage answer was pretty good, although he did stumble through the last part. McCain does get a benefit on the gay marriage, abortion, and the question of judges, because his views on those issues are more in line with those of the audience. McCain is pro-life, and has a 20-plus year pro-life record. It's easier for him to explain that.
Staying on the abortion question, I think Obama's biggest gaffe was the obvious one, the "above my pay grade" answer, to Rick Warren's question. That was a sloppy mistake. I know what he was trying to say (it's up to God), but it came off as evasive, cold, and stupid. I think Ann Althouse hits the nail with her explanation:
Now, let's also look at Rick Warren's rhetoric. He asked, after a preface about abortion, "when does a baby get human rights in your view?" And, most obviously, his use of "baby" instead of "fetus" or at least "unborn baby" conveys a lot of opinion. But look at what else Warren is doing. He is not asking when does life begin?, a question that is much more susceptible to Obama's answer that only God knows. Warren is asking when do rights begin? That makes it a legal question. And Warren even appends the phrase "in your view."
So Obama's answer — that it's not for him to say — is inapt. Obama answered the question he expected to hear. But Warren had the wit to frame the question in terms of a legal opinion that Obama was fully equipped to give. When does the baby have legal rights?
Exactly. Warren was prepared, and asked a question Obama apparently wasn't ready for. Obama answered the question he either thought was asked, or thought should be asked, and missed it on this one. Warren himself expounds on Obama's answer(link via Althouse):
No. I think he needed to be more specific on that. I happen to disagree with Barack on that. Like I said, he's a friend. But to me, I would not want to die and get before God one day and go, 'Oh, sorry, I didn't take the time to figure out' because if I was wrong then it had severe implications to my leadership if I had the ability to do something about it. He should either say, 'No scientifically, I do not believe it's a human being until X' or whatever it is or to say, 'Yes, I believe it is a human being at X point,' whether it's conception or anything else. But to just say 'I don't know' on the most divisive issue in America is not a clear enough answer for me.
Nope, not clear enough at all.
However, as I saw it, those were his only major gaffes. I do think he had a different attitude about the debate than McCain did, that may count as a mistake. I do think some of his answers, particularly his foreign policy answers, were a but too abstract and philosophic, while McCain went directly to policy and specifics. When asked about evil, McCain went directly to 9/11 and al-qaeda. McCain mentioned Russia and Georgia. McCain sounded forceful on those answers. Obama's answers weren't bad, it's just that McCain seemed to keep the focus on the issues at hand. I still hesitate somewhat to call this a mistake on Obama's part, as both candidates have different approaches, and had different tasks during the debate. McCain saw this as his opportunity to shore up his evangelical base, and the talk from many righties is that they like what they saw. Obama had to make a good impression with evangelical voters, ans he may have hurt himself somewhat with the abortion answer, and the dis to Clarence Thomas.
Not that most conservatives were going to vote for Obama, anyway.
A quick point about the cheating controversy. I don't believe it. While it's apparently true that McCain wasn't in the "cone of silence," Rick Warren says he took real steps to keep McCain from hearing Obama, and I believe him. McCain says he didn't hear the questions, and I believe him as well. Also, I wonder what difference it would have made. I think those amongst the Obama circles who advance this story aren't helping, as it makes Obama look whiny and weak.
All in all, mistakes included, they both did a decent job. Besides, I think Ann is right when she points this out:
There were many other differences on display at the forum. Compare their answers on abortion and their efforts to put a number on "rich." It's this displaying of differences that matters far more than any conclusions about who won.
ADDED: Sully also misses the point, but Ross Douthat gets it right.
AND: This from Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, on why the dis to Clarence Thomas could be a major disaster.