(Chip Somodevilla)

There’s no argument here that Lehrer kept the polemics confined to the rules that he outlined at the beginning of the clash, whatever they were. Nor is there any argument here that the candidates didn’t ignore his ever-so-polite quasi-interruptions to inform them that their time was up.

Yet the debate was excellent — free-flowing, multitopical, informative and civil. Maybe a little too civil. Credit for those distinctions may well rest with the candidates, who’d obviously been drilling and drilling far more than they’d acknowledged in their expectations-lowering public statements prior to the Denver showdown.

Lehrer, though, deserves a nod as well. He moderated the thing, after all. Much of the vitriol headed his way grinds at his inability to enforce time limits, which are arbitrary and dumb anyhow.

He also gets points off among the commentariat for allowing himself to be steamrolled by the candidates. Okay, so the guy fails in a test of wills against two men who are putatively the most strong-willed people in the country.

Lehrer’s real problem was that, for one night, he had to play stand-in for the entire American media. And if there’s one thing the American public enjoys, it’s bashing the American media, no matter how it performs.