Last Presidential Debate Gets A Lot More Feisty

An invigorated John McCain sharply challenged Barack Obama's policies and personal associations in the third and final presidential debate Wednesday night, attempting to reverse what appeared before the debate to be Obama's gathering momentum for the White House.

The many sharp exchanges in Wednesday night's encounter at Hofstra University on Long Island — the candidates' last opportunity before the November election to reach a mass television audience — included several effective one-liners by both McCain and Obama and was a sharp departure from the relatively tepid atmosphere of the first two debates.

The McCain campaign had hoped that Wednesday's face-off would produce a big, memorable moment — a McCain attack that finally landed, an Obama stumble — that decisively called into question the temperament of the younger, less experienced Democrat to lead the country.

Over the past week, McCain has also been under pressure by conservative talk show hosts and angry Republican voters at his rallies to "take off the gloves" and assail Obama's alleged ties to William Ayers, a founder of the 1960s radical activist group Weather Underground. Conservatives have also castigated what they say are Obama's ties to the community organizing group ACORN, which has been accused of voter registration fraud after election registrars have found phony applications submitted by canvassers for the group.

But when this highly anticipated "MacAttack" arrived, 35 minutes into the debate, Obama seemed prepared and quickly turned the conversation back toward the economy.

In response to a question from moderator Bob Schieffer about both campaigns' reliance on negative advertising, McCain said, "I don't care about an old washed-up terrorist [Ayers]," but then insisted that "we need to know the extent of Sen. Obama's relationship with ACORN." McCain accused ACORN of perpetrating the "biggest fraud in American history" in its voter registration drives in minority communities.

The McCain attack was widely expected and Obama seemed prepared, calmly explaining his distant connection to both Ayers and ACORN, saying, "Forty years ago, when I was 8 years old, [Ayers] engaged in despicable acts which I have condemned." Obama went on to insist, as he did throughout the debate, that the voters are less concerned about personal attacks by the candidates than about how each would extricate the country from its economic morass.

Obama also said, "The fact that [Ayers and ACORN have] become such an important part of your campaign, Sen. McCain, says more about your campaign than it does about me."

In other exchanges, the candidates reiterated their positions on taxes, health care and energy policy, with McCain attempting to put Obama on the defensive by issuing sharp one-liners about the Democrats' desire to "spread the wealth around" and practice "class warfare" by using federal taxes to redistribute income.

But Obama gamely shot back, at one point saying, when McCain criticized his tax plan, "He [McCain] has been watching too many ads for the McCain campaign."

The first half-hour of the debate was dominated by an almost mythical "Joe the Plumber," one Joe Wurzelbacher, an Ohio man looking to buy a plumbing business whom Obama met while campaigning over the weekend. As described in press accounts, Wurzelbacher complained to Obama that the Democrat's tax plan would keep him from buying the business.

McCain introduced "Joe the Plumber" as a symbol of working Americans who would actually be hurt by Obama's tax and health care plans, claiming that the Republican strategy for taxes and using tax credits to fund health care would help more Americans. But Obama then carefully walked through how his tax plan would benefit 95 percent of all taxpayers, saying that "Joe the Plumber" would do well under his plan."

McCain also went out of his way to distance himself from fellow Republican George Bush, saying, "Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have done so four years ago."

McCain arrived at Hofstra the clear underdog in the debate, stretched like a bungee between two opposing needs. On the one hand, national polling has shown that McCain's attacks on Obama's background and liberal voting record, while popular with his Republican base, have alienated the independent voters that McCain desperately needs to win the election. But during recent campaign swings through Wisconsin, Missouri and Pennsylvania, McCain has been urged by ordinary voters and talk show hosts to wage more personal, aggressive attacks on Obama, which he occasionally promised to do.

McCain is also burdened by historic events largely outside his control — an unpopular if stabilized war in Iraq, a worsening war in Afghanistan, a collapsing national economy, and, this week, a barrage of influential national polls showing him falling behind Obama by as much as 14 percentage points. And the Quinnipiac Swing State Poll, conducted in the two weeks before the final debate, also showed McCain trailing by less decisive margins in such critical states as Colorado, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Despite McCain's feisty delivery Wednesday night, polls taken immediately after the debate uniformly and overwhelmingly showed that the Arizona senator had failed to deliver his necessary knockout punch.