Without analyzing the entire debate (embedded below), here are few very general observations.
Jim Lehrer laid out the format. Because so many topics are inextricably linked, however, the candidates found it difficult to stay within the debate parameters. The first five minutes pretty much introduced the topics about which the candidates argued.
Obama opened by noting the difficult problems that he inherited from the Bush administration and listing the efforts he made to address those problems. Obama failed to acknowledge that his first four years pretty much consisted of Bush III--continuation of bailouts, expansion of healthcare entitlements, and Instead, he redirected the focus from the last four years to the future: it is not important "where we have been, but where we are going." He listed five areas he planned to address in his next term: education reform, energy independence, tax reform to help small business, rebuilding the infrastructure, and reducing the deficit.
Romney opened with an anecdotal introduction to the impact of the last four years on average Americans to enhance his credentials as a man who cares. He presents a five item bullet point presentation of his agenda if elected. He pretty much mirrored Obama.
1.) Exploit domestic sources of energy to move to energy independence. (He wisely made the link between energy production and jobs.)
2.) Expand our trade, especially with Latin America. ( He should have linked this to the illegal immigration problem. That problem is not that our immigration system is broken; it is Mexico that is broken. We can't blame the immigrants. Perhaps if the government provided financial incentives for companies to invest in Mexico rather than in China, the immigrants might stay home.)
3.)Improve our education system and the skills acquired by Americans.
4.) Balance the budget.
5.) Champion small business through sound regulation and taxation policies.
The debate returned again and again to these topics, even when Lehrer moved on to health care and philosophy about the role of government.
Did we learn anything new about the issues? Not much. Partly owing to the debate format and partly because they are both political trimmers, the candidates proved to be short on specifics.
Even liberal analysts noted, however, Romney won the debate. He seemed much more knowledgeable and articulated his positions with more clarity and conviction than the President. He responded to every challenge offered by the President. He fended off distortions of his positions. And he mixed his presentations with humor, segments of which received repeated air time on cable news. This may go a long way in enhancing his candidacy as more than just the "Not Obama."
He took control of the event and established himself as chairman of the board.