McCain obviously came to the fight tonight with an aim to maim, while Obama arrived expecting a gentleman’s duel. McCain might be an old man, but his political bloodlust is like Viagra, animating his inner bully long enough to throw the younger, cooler man off his game. Obama let McCain get away with a spray of bloated but damaging rhetoric, and worse, let McCain land potentially fatal blows against his fitness for the job. Taking the low road at every opportunity, McCain actually suggested that Obama would not only sit across from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “without preconditions” but in doing so, legitimize Ahmadinejad’s mission to exterminate Israel! Sorry Rachel Maddow, the “juiciest soundbites of the debate” were not Obama’s.

McCain has the audacity to behave as though, because he “loves” the troops and won’t let them come home in disgrace, his judgment in sending them there in the first place cannot be impugned. Obama pushed back, but with none of the visceral passion we would expect after all the blood and brains that have been spilled in this war so far.

Instead, it was all about the Surge and Obama did nothing to dispel the myth, nothing to call out McCain on his wild assertion that Iran is still sending “special groups” into Iraq to kill our soldiers, or that “peace and prosperity” is on the way because the Iraqi parliament finally passed legislation setting a date for elections after months of deadlock. He didn’t mention the 5 million displaced Iraqis, the 30 percent unemployment rate and the 90,000 Sunni “sons of Iraq” who may soon by out of a job. These were gimmes and Obama let them go.

McCain proceeded to mock Obama for suggesting that as President, Obama would strike cross-border into Pakistan to get al Qaeda. We may not like it, but at this very moment, George W. Bush is authorizing such cross border attacks into Pakistan. Obama let it go. McCain dismissed Obama as naive and misinformed for thinking that the Russia-Georgia conflict was any deeper than a teaspoon. McCain has no problem going for the jugular — do you think it would have hurt Obama to point out that McCain’s chief foreign policy advisor was getting paid directly by the government of Georgia as recently as last year to take that very position?

I do not care what the pundits might say in the morning — McCain looked peevish and mean, every bit the “McNasty” moniker his fellow classmates gave him in school. Obama was too conciliatory, too cautious. He absorbed the hits, kept his cool, but let McCain continue to frame him as a puppy to his big dog, and that’s not the place where Obama wanted to be on Saturday morning.

UPDATE : More observant writers have pointed out that the seething grandfather, in his rant last night about casting the “right” vote in every military operation in the last half century like some bizarro Mephistopheles, employed the very same bald-faced jig at Saddleback.

No doubt Obama’s people saw this coming — I mean he does have 300 foreign policy advisors — and hopefully prompted their guy to act swiftly when the time came. But again, he let the moment pass. Why?