Dean: A serviceable performance. Loosened up as time went on but still to hesitant in his answers, especially on foreign policy. Resorted to stump speech lines to much. Didn't hurt himself but didn't help himself either. Advice to his handlers: give him a few days off before each debate. Get some seasoned debate coaches in to loosen him up. You've got the money for things like this, use it.
Kerry: Demonstrated knowledge and experience but did very well to dissuade the impression that he just doesn't have the fire for this contest. He didn't help himself, which means he hurt himself because his campaign desperately needs a boost if it is to stop fading.
Gephardt: Winner of the night I think. Easily the most relaxed and on fire of the participants. Got of the best sound bite with his "miserable failure" line about Bush's handling of foreign policy (and everything else for that matter). This is the kind of attack Democrats need to be making repeatedly in order to bring down the public's impression that Bush is good at foreign policy. Until people like Dean started criticizing him most people never thought there was anything TO complain about. Bravo for Gephardt! He demonstrates how to adopt a Dean approach without just looking like he adopting a Dean approach.
Lieberman: Zzzzz. Still droning on. His "Dean Depression" attack was silly since it seems to imply that the country would be better voting for Bush over Dean. How is this supposed to help the Democrats Mr. Lieberman?
Edwards: The guy has a good stage presence and its a mystery why his campaign simply hasn't taken off. It may be the case of a great candidate with a terrible staff. Wouldn't be the first time.
Graham: Again, a serviceable performance. He needs a lot more than that though if he is going to stop his slide into the third tier of candidates.
Kucinich: Showed some fire and is a good voice for progressive politics, but his proposals just aren't realistic in the world we live in today. Maybe in 20 years after we reverse the decay brought about by Republican dominance. But not now.
Braun: Nothing special really. I frankly didn't pay that much attention to her answers. Sorry Carol but I'd rather have your question time given over to the other candidates.
Final Assessments: I was pleasantly surprised that there weren't more attacks on Dean. The pre-spin on this was that everyone would be gunning for Dean (especially Kerry). Instead most everyone focused their attacks on Bush which is all for the better. In fact, I noticed a distinctly Dean-like quality to a lot of the volleys directed against Bush. Even if Dean does not win the nomination he has permanently altered the nature of the Democratic contest for the better (IMHO). Dean came into this the front runner and I think he is still the front runner. But he needs to do better next time if he wants to open things up. His best moment of the night was when he responded to Lieberman's attack. The casual smile followed by the hard rebuttal works well in moments like that.
Update: I've been reading through the comments on the O-Blog about the debate and it appears that many Dean supporters are harder on their man than the press has been. In fact, the initial press assessment seems to be that Dean looked more Presidential this time around (while Gephardt was "out-Deaning Dean").
Since I follow Dean much more closely than others I may no longer be the best judge of how he does in these kinds of outings. I've heard the stump speech lines so many times that I can recite them in my sleep. Maybe using them in the debate is not such a bad idea (though I have to wonder if Dean is getting so used to them that he just can't deliver them with the same fire anymore). And being a little more laid-back in this format may work better than the firebrand style Dean uses on the stump. Kucinich, who was the most firey tonight, comes off as a bit of a hot-head.
So, maybe this performance actually did help Dean more than I thought. We shall see.
One other thing: I made the comment above that Dean relied a lot on stump speech lines. What I didn't consider at the time is that I haven't heard the stump speeches of the other candidates anywhere near as much as Dean's so I honestly can't say how much they were recycling their own material.