CLEARING THE CREDIBILITY HURDLE…. Most of the polls since Friday night have shown Barack Obama as the “winner” of the first presidential candidate debate. But for the Obama campaign, this perception was a secondary goal — the principal objective was for Obama to prove himself as a credible leader prepared for the presidency. In this sense, Friday was as much about improving perceptions as it was the specific task at hand.

With that in mind, a new Gallup poll will no doubt be welcome at Obama campaign headquarters.

Although the debate was supposed to deal with foreign policy, the first portion of the questions … focused on the economy and the financial bailout plan being negotiated by Congress. This economic focus appears to have been positive for Obama; debate watchers ended up with more confidence in Obama’s ability to deal with the economic problems facing the country, rather than less confidence as a result of the debate. By contrast, 37% of debate watchers said that the debate gave them less confidence in John McCain on economic matters rather than more.

Debate watchers saw little difference between the two candidates on national defense and foreign policy as a result of the debate; both Obama and McCain appeared to have come away with slightly improved images on foreign policy.

In all, 35% (a plurality) said they now have more confidence in Obama’s ability to handle national defense and foreign policy, just slightly higher than the 34% who said the same about McCain. The problem, of course, was that McCain intended to use this debate to make Americans less confident in Obama on these issues, and encourage voters to see a huge difference between the two.

As Greg Sargent noted, “McCain was under enormous pressure to jar the electorate into seeing Obama as not merely unprepared, but risky and dangerous — hence McCain’s repeated use of that last word.” The evidence now suggests this didn’t happen. Indeed, while Obama was gaining ground on foreign policy credibility, McCain was losing ground on the economy.

It’s an analogy I’ve been referencing for a while, but James Fallows noted the 1960, 1980, and 1992 races after the debate, arguing, “In each of those cases, a fresh, new candidate (although chronologically older in Reagan’s case) had been gathering momentum at a time of general dissatisfaction with the ‘four more years’ option of sticking with the incumbent party. The question was whether the challenger could stand as an equal with the more experienced, tested, and familiar figure. In each of those cases, the challenger passed the test — not necessarily by ‘winning’ the debate, either on logical points or in immediate audience or polling reactions, but by subtly reassuring doubters on the basic issue of whether he was a plausible occupant of the White House and commander in chief.”

If the polls are accurate, it’s a hurdle Obama cleared rather easily on Friday night.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.