"There was no knockout, and maybe no knockdown, but McCain was on the offensive throughout," commentator William Kristol said on Fox News Channel.
His fellow panelist, Juan Williams, quickly retorted, "I thought Barack Obama put John McCain on the defensive all night." David Gergen, CNN analyst, said, "McCain needed a clear victory tonight and I think that eluded him."
Said Fox's Chris Wallace, "I think the McCain campaign is very happy tonight."
And they weren't even the professional spinners, who try to buttonhole reporters backstage with opinions about as predictable as the sun rising every morning. It has become a cliche of debate nights, a room television networks know they should avoid but can't seem to help themselves.
Another useless TV trick: those meters that can be twisted up or down to show how a voter is responding to a particular passage. Mostly, they looked indecipherable.
Obama's campaign put forward vice presidential candidate Joe Biden for post-debate interviews, and he appeared on all the news networks. His Republican counterpart, Sarah Palin, was nowhere in sight.
Several commentators noted how Obama said at a number of points that McCain was right about something, which could either be construed as a sign of weakness or one in which he was willing to lead in a bipartisan manner. McCain pounded home the point that there were several things his opponent didn't understand about the world.
"McCain very often seemed like he was condescending, seeming like he was lecturing Barack Obama," CNN's Gloria Borger said.
The first debate, which was supposed to be centered on foreign policy, concerned the economy for about 40 minutes. Moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS kept his questions simple to get the men talking. He even tried to push the candidates to address each other instead of the camera, a request that had some success as more heated foreign policy exchanges came.
Snapshot polls by both CNN and CBS News showed Obama with a clear advantage among voters in how people perceived the debate performance. CBS monitored a roomful of uncommitted voters and when asked who won the debate shortly after it was done, the number of people who raised their hands for Obama was more than double than those for McCain.
Consensus for either side will undoubtedly harden as the debate quickly gets reduced to sound bites and Youtube clips. "Is the race now different than it was at 9 p.m. eastern time?" asked ABC commentator George Will. "The answer I think is no. This wasn't a game changer. Both had their familiar personas. Barack Obama was the rather tweedy professor conducting a national seminar. John McCain was a rather hotter personality, the national scold."
Pundits didn't need a calendar to start anticipating the next debate, between Biden and Palin. It's scheduled for Oct. 2.
Television networks will find out in a few days whether the McCain-Obama debate could claim the ultimate record of most-watched presidential debate ever.
The standard was set in 1980, when 80.6 million people watched that campaign's only debate between President Jimmy Carter and Republican challenger Ronald Reagan. TV audiences that big typically gather only once a year, for the Super Bowl.
The most-watched debate since 1980 was the second of three between the first President Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992, seen by just under 70 million people. The first debate in 2004 between President Bush and John Kerry was seen by 62.5 million, Nielsen Media Research said.
AP Television Writer Frazier Moore contributed to this report.