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McCain, Obama get tough in spirited final debate

Gannett News Service


Gannett News Service

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – John McCain charged, Barack Obama parried, and “Joe the plumber” came up so many times they could have had a chair for him.

Both men did what they came to do, but the most spirited and final debate between the two presidential candidates likely left no fundamental shakeup of the 2008 presidential election. So the final 19 days of the campaign proceed with the Democratic nominee Obama having the edge, largely because of fundamental concerns about the economy under the Republican presidency of George W. Bush.

Obama repeatedly tried to tie McCain with unpopular President Bush, particularly on economic policy. In one of the 90-minute debate’s most memorable moments, McCain declared: “Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush you should have run four years ago.”

Facing each other across desks at Hofstra University, the Democrat Obama and the Republican McCain exposed sharp and familiar divisions on tax, energy, health care, abortion rights and trade policy. But for the first time in a debate, they detoured into some of the raw rhetoric that has infused both campaigns in recent days. McCain raised Obama’s relationship with ’60s-era radical William Ayers. Obama complained that people attending some of McCain’s rallies have cried “terrorist” or “kill him” when Obama’s name is mentioned.

McCain was best with repetitive calls to smaller government and lower taxes for everyone. Obama scored when he said Americans’ economic concerns trumped any personal differences he has with McCain.

Never far off stage, rhetorically, was Joe Wurzelbacher, a Holland, Ohio, plumber who had told Obama at an Ohio rally earlier this week that he was worried that Obama would raise his taxes and prevent him from buying his plumbing business. McCain’s campaign highlighted the confrontation leading into the debate, and the Arizona senator wasted little time invoking Joe the plumber.

McCain said Obama’s plan to raise taxes on Americans making over $250,000 would hit small-business owners like Wurzelbacher the hardest.

“In other words we are going to take Joe’s money, give it to Sen. Obama, and let him spread the wealth around,” McCain said. “I want Joe the plumber to spread the wealth around.”

“We both want to cut taxes,” Obama responded. “The difference is, who do we want to cut taxes for? . . . Nobody likes taxes. . . . but ultimately we have to pay for the investments that make this economy strong.”

Prodded by moderator Bob Schieffer to talk about leadership, McCain finally raised Ayers, whose Weather Underground bombed federal buildings, including the Pentagon. McCain had talked about the ’60s radical on the stump, but not at their first two debates.

“We need to know the full extent of that relationship,” McCain said.

Obama portrayed Ayers as a distraction from the real concerns of Americans, condemned his “despicable acts,” and listed several advisers – prominent Republicans and Democrats – he said had really helped shape his political views

“Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign, he has never been involved in this campaign, and he will not advise me in the White House,” Obama said.

Three presidential debates over 19 days were overshadowed by larger events far outside the debate halls. They produced no lasting sound bites, no major missteps, and no decisive verdicts for either man. Which is the way Obama might have scripted it. He needed to appear presidential, and polls showed he was able to do that in the first two debates.

McCain came to Hofstra with more at stake because he had fallen behind Obama in national polls and in emerging swing states like Virginia and Colorado, as a global economic crisis intensified.

Since their last meeting in Nashville eight days ago, the stock markets have fallen to levels of roughly four years ago, and the Dow retreated another 700-plus points on Wednesday. The federal government has partially nationalized some of the nation’s largest banks. Americans remain worried about the economy, but they still have a modicum of trust that a new leader could forge a path back to prosperity, according to a new survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

Obama plays basketball to blow off steam, and an analogy from that sport is fitting now. Obama needs to run out the clock to Nov. 4 without any major mistakes or surprises – a major national security event, for instance – that would propel this campaign into yet another unexpected turn.

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