By Mark Preston
CNN Political Editor
NASHVILLE, TN (CNN) - Game changer it was not. John McCain entered Tuesday's presidential debate needing Barack Obama to stumble or in the very least the GOP nominee had to deliver a performance that could help change the direction of the campaign.
It didn't happen.
Election Day is closing in and valuable time is slipping away. A new round of CNN/Opinion Research Corporation state polls released Tuesday morning showed that Obama is making gains in key battleground states as well as in a couple of traditional Republican strongholds.
Neither candidate had a stellar performance. Each failed to effectively use the town hall format to express compassion for the problems voters are facing. Instead, Obama and McCain used the debate as a soapbox to tout their policy positions and criticize one another on their policy stands.
But much like the first presidential debate held two weeks ago in Oxford, Mississippi, a draw for Obama would be considered a win. When the curtain dropped on Tuesday's debate, Nashville was Oxford and more for the Democratic nominee.
A poll of debate watchers conducted by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation handed Obama a convincing win. Who did the best job in the debate? Obama received 54 percent, compared to the 30 percent who chose McCain. Among debate watchers, Obama also saw his favorable ratings increase by 4 percent -- 64 percent from 60 percent -- at the start of the debate to when the final question was asked. McCain's favorable rating held steady at 51 percent. The Republican nominee gained no ground.
There are still 27 days remaining in what has been a triathlon quest for the White House. The election isn't over, but McCain needs a quick change of course.
Missing from the debate were mentions of William Ayers or Charles Keating, two hot topics of discussion on the campaign trail in the previous four days. But the candidates did not shy away from criticizing each other. Obama and McCain clashed on just about every issue from health care and taxes to Pakistan and who was more to fault for the crash of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
President Bush did become part of the discussion as Obama sought to tie McCain to the lame duck president, who has a 24 percent approval rating, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll released this week.
In turn, McCain tried to distance himself from his Republican colleague and at one point attempted to lump Obama together with Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney on the issue of energy.
"By the way, my friends, I know you grow a little weary with this back-and-forth," McCain said to the town hall audience and the millions tuned into the debate. "It was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney. You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one. You know who voted against it? Me."
McCain was referring to Obama when he said "That one".
McCain's willingness to disassociate himself with Bush is not a new strategy. The two men are not close and right now McCain is fighting for the support of undecided, independent voters in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. Several times McCain mentioned how he has a bipartisan record and has worked alongside the likes of Sens. Joe Lieberman and Edward Kennedy on the issues. Lieberman, who describes himself as an independent Democrat, has endorsed McCain.
For Obama's part, he was relatively steady but professorial at times during the 90-minute event.