The big news from last night’s debate is that McCain is actually alive — He was sputtering, inarticulate, and buffoonish, but he was alive. Thankfully, this (plus the expectations set by the mind-numbing boredom of the other debates) made last night the first interesting debate. Obama was still boring, but McCain, at least, was feisty.

The conventional wisdom is that McCain needed a game-changer. But this sets McCain up to fail. The two previous debates were painfully boring, McCain is now the deep underdog, and many Americans are wondering if McCain even has a pulse. Given the choice between voting for Obama and a dead guy, and most people will chose Obama — even dead voters.

Bob Schieffer asked a series of domestic policy that pretty much any 10th grader could have written. Bad as he was, Schieffer did a vastly better job than Jim Leher and Tom Brokaw. Even last night’s 15-minute exchange about who was the more negative campaigner seemed mildly interesting — a testament to how bad the previous debates were.

The first half of the debate, McCain did quite well, and Obama appeared rattled and frustrated more than once. During the second half, McCain began to struggle to get his words out, and McCain “Joe the plumber” lines seemed increasingly like odd references to his favorite porn video. [see update below]

Obama, by contrast, settled down over time, gradually coming to the realization that McCain was only ever going to take jabs at him, and never follow up to go for the knockout. Once this reality set in, Obama resumed his dour look of boredom, sounding generally “thoughtful,” but still falling far short of the eloquent genius that McCain kept accusing Obama of having. But one thing came through loud and clear: Obama regrets having agreed to three debates, because he’s ahead way anyway, and this McCain guy is a pain in the ass.

McCain scored the best line of all the debates: “If you wanted to run against President Bush you should have run four years ago.” His low point was bringing up Ayers. McCain was cryptic enough that nobody knew what McCain was talking about unless they already objected to Obama’s political alliance with Ayers.

Obama, as usual, didn’t say anything boring. His best trick in the debates is coming up with novel ways to lie about his past record to keep McCain from responding. Who could have known that Obama would say that Illinois already had a law protecting babies born failed abortions? One could hardly expect McCain to know enough about Illinois law to call Obama on it.

For my part, I’m more convinced than ever that presidential debates are useless as indicators of who to vote for.

[UPDATE: In my 4th paragraph, I’m poking fun at McCain’s usage of “Joe the Plumber” as a debating gimmick. I am not making fun of Joe Wurzelbacher, the plumber who was thrust in the media spotlight when a camera caught Senator Obama’s response to his question about taxes in a “rope line” during an Obama campaign stop. Joe Wurzelbacher is entitled to ask candidates questions when he has the opportunity, and he shouldn’t be attacked or criticized for it.]