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Final debate: War Admiral vs. Seabiscuit

For all the chatter about the adolescence of the first debate and the blown chance for a second, President TrumpDonald TrumpHarry Reid reacts to Boehner book excerpt: 'We didn't mince words' Man arrested for allegedly threatening to stab undercover Asian officer in NYC Trump says GOP will take White House in 2024 in prepared speech MORE reignited the lamp of hope that 2016 was but a harbinger of 2020. He answered the bell.

Contrary to expectations, this did not turn into another partisan scrum where none were listening and all were shouting. In big ways and small, we witnessed the inherent difference between a lifetime politician raised by the system and a consummate outsider bred to challenge it.

As opposed to the first square-off, where the moderator tried too hard to be a major part of it, NBC’s Kristen Welker created a virtual classroom where Americans were schooled on why this election matters. Yet it’s fair to observe that the questions posed seemed geared more toward reinforcing a Democratic nominee.

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Little time was spent delving into foreign policy, as if North Korea (armed to its nuclear teeth) merited no more than passing attention, or the historic breakthrough in the Middle East between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which earned the president a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

Scant attention was paid to the challenger’s intention to raise taxes versus drilling down on the president’s own or to Trump’s landmark achievement on criminal justice reform.

No time at all was given to the issue of law and order and the movement to defund police, despite the looting and burning that devastated the peace (and closed down scores of small businesses) in major American cities.

Instead, following a thorough and necessary opener on COVID-19, this civics lesson revolved more around ObamaCare, race relations, immigration and climate change, issues the former vice president swung at — knowing that the outfield fences had been moved closer to home plate for his at-bats.

With that said, here are five key takeaways:

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One. He’s back on his game. Trump was disciplined, substantive and presidential. If he’d done the same in Cleveland a few weeks back, he’d be surging.

Two. Unforced errors. Without cause, Biden threw Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaUS raises concerns about Iran's seriousness in nuclear talks Matt Stoller calls on Biden administration to keep McKinsey away from infrastructure Obamas describe meeting Prince Philip in statement mourning his death MORE under the bus for not doing enough on immigration and Bernie SandersBernie SandersHillicon Valley: Amazon wins union election — says 'our employees made the choice' On The Money: Biden .5T budget proposes major hike in social programs | GOP bashes border, policing provisions Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists MORE and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOn The Money: Biden .5T budget proposes major hike in social programs | GOP bashes border, policing provisions Overnight Defense: Biden proposes 3B defense budget | Criticism comes in from left and right | Pentagon moves toward new screening for extremists POW/MIA flag moved back atop White House MORE for doing too much to impose government-run health care on everyone. Inexplicably, Biden did his best George H.W. Bush debate gaffe imitation by looking at his watch (at least twice), hoping the clock would spare him from one of his own.

Three. Stamina. The longer the debate wore on, the more Biden wore out. Given all the questions raised about his physical endurance and mental acuity to handle the most difficult (and aging) job on the planet, this was not an encouraging sign. By contrast, even post-COVID-19 illness, the president looked like he could go all night.

Four. Opening versus closing. Biden has few qualms about closing some, most or all of the nation to take on COVID-19; Trump clearly feels angst doing any of that, knowing the fallout from an economic pandemic (joblessness, hopelessness, drug abuse, domestic violence) can be as devastating as the disease itself.

Five. Outsider versus insider. In the final stages of the debate, the president closed in on Biden’s repeated promises to change the world, despite a 47-year record during which he changed very little. It was an effective exchange for the incumbent outsider because it forced voters to question why they should believe Biden would suddenly do what he’s never done before.

More than 47 million people have already voted, with another 100 million or more left to go. Like Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonClose the avenues of foreign meddling Pelosi planned on retiring until Trump won election: report Pence autobiography coming from Simon & Schuster MORE four years ago, Biden has the early lead in the polls. Yet with performances like last night, be prepared for a thrilling stretch run where Biden plays the presumptive favorite and Trump the underrated underdog. It’s War Admiral versus Seabiscuit all over again. And we all know how that one turned out.

Adam Goodman is a national Republican media strategist and columnist. He is a partner at Ballard Partners in Washington, D.C. He is also the first Edward R. Murrow senior fellow at Tufts University's Fletcher School. Follow him on Twitter @adamgoodman3