Candidates duel in caustic debate finale

Times Staff Writers

A pugnacious John McCain repeatedly questioned the character and veracity of Barack Obama on Wednesday night, portraying the Democrat as an extremist in both his policies and choice of personal associates. Obama parried in their final presidential debate by suggesting the Republican was more focused on attacks than addressing the concerns of Americans.

The 90-minute session was by far the liveliest and most caustic encounter between the two men. It was not immediately evident, however, whether anything occurred at New York’s Hofstra University to change the dynamic of the race, which appears to favor Obama with less than three weeks until election day.

McCain was the aggressor from the start. The Arizona senator sought to distance himself from the unpopular White House incumbent more explicitly than ever. “If you wanted to run against President Bush,” McCain told Obama, “you should have run four years ago.”

Undeterred, Obama responded, “If I’ve occasionally mistaken your policies for George Bush’s policies, it’s because on the core economic issues that matter to the American people -- on tax policy, on energy policy, on spending priorities -- you have been a vigorous supporter of President Bush.”

McCain cited differences with fellow Republicans on spending and other issues, challenging Obama to cite where he had broken with Democrats. The Illinois senator said the first major bill he backed in Washington was to limit lawsuits, “which wasn’t very popular with trial lawyers,” a major Democratic constituency. He noted that he had also differed with his party on education and environmental policies.


“Sen. Obama,” McCain responded dryly, “your argument for standing up to the leaders of your party isn’t very convincing.”

But the night’s most vigorous exchanges involved a cast of the campaign’s walk-on characters.

Asked about the increasingly nasty tone of the race, McCain cited remarks made last weekend by Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a hero of the civil rights movement. Lewis expressed concern about the slurs used at some McCain rallies and invoked Alabama’s segregationist governor, the late George Wallace.

McCain called Lewis’ comments “very unfair and totally inappropriate” and chided Obama for not repudiating them. “Every time there’s been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them,” McCain said.

Obama said Lewis was concerned that at some rallies McCain supporters shouted “things like ‘terrorist’ and ‘kill him’ and that your running mate . . . didn’t stop, didn’t say, ‘Hold on a second, that’s kind of out of line.’ And I think congressman Lewis’ point was that we have to be careful about how we deal with our supporters.”

That said, Obama noted he immediately disassociated himself from Lewis’ comment, adding, “I think the American people are less interested in our hurt feelings during the course of the campaign than addressing the issues that matter to them so deeply.”

McCain, however, persisted. Moments later, he demanded to know the extent of Obama’s relationship with William Ayers, a Vietnam-era radical, and ACORN, a left-leaning organization accused of voter registration fraud. “All of these things need to be examined,” McCain said.

Obama said his connections to ACORN were limited to working to implement Illinois’ “motor voter law,” which allowed people to register to vote when they registered their cars or obtained driver’s licenses.

Obama condemned Ayers’ violent past and said, “Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign.” Ayers helped found the radical group that came to be known as the Weather Underground, which planned a series of bombings to protest the Vietnam War. Decades later, Obama and Ayers, who is now a University of Illinois professor, served on an education reform board in Chicago. “He has never been involved in this campaign,” Obama said. “And he will not advise me in the White House.

“I think the fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Sen. McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me,” Obama said.

“My campaign is about getting this economy back on track, about creating jobs, about a brighter future for America,” McCain replied.

The format differed from previous debates. In the first, Obama and McCain stood behind lecterns. The second was a town hall-style forum. On Wednesday night, the candidates were seated at a table a few feet apart, with the moderator, CBS’ Bob Schieffer, facing them.

Several networks broadcast the debate in split screen, and it showed a striking contrast in demeanor. Obama laughed derisively during several of McCain’s attacks but otherwise remained composed. McCain sighed, smirked and rolled his eyes during several Obama responses. At one point, he opened his eyes wide in wonder.

Though much of the evening was spent rehashing familiar issues, the two candidates did break some ground.

McCain suggested that Obama had stepped to the political fringe by failing to take a position on a late-term abortion ban when he served in the Illinois Senate and for opposing a measure that would provide medical attention to a child born of a failed abortion. “I don’t know how you align yourself with the extreme aspect of the pro-abortion movement in America . . . in direct contradiction to the feelings and views of mainstream America,” McCain said.

Obama said the medical-attention bill would have undercut the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, and there was an existing Illinois statute that required such care. He said he voted against the late-term abortion ban because it did not include an exception in case the mother’s health is in jeopardy.

“Just again, the example of the eloquence of Sen. Obama,” McCain said sarcastically, suggesting the word “health” had been “stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything.” McCain wiggled his fingers to indicate quote marks around “health.”

McCain also suggested that Obama was outside the political mainstream on energy when Schieffer pressed each candidate to specify how much he could reduce foreign oil imports in his first term. McCain said he could eliminate dependence on Mideast and Venezuelan oil in four years by embarking on an aggressive program to start building dozens of nuclear power plants. He assailed Obama for siding with “extreme environmentalists” who say “it has to be safe.”

“We’ve sailed Navy ships around the world for 60 years with nuclear power plants on them,” McCain said.

Obama suggested it would take 10 years to stop oil imports from the Mideast or Venezuela. He also said the country should “look at offshore drilling,” prompting a tart response from McCain.

“I admire so much Sen. Obama’s eloquence,” McCain said. “And you really have to pay attention to words. He said we will look at offshore drilling. Did you get that? Look at.”

The two again differed over taxes, McCain asserting that Obama would raise them and penalize working Americans like “Joe the Plumber,” a man Obama met Sunday while canvassing a neighborhood in Ohio. “The whole premise behind Sen. Obama’s plans are class warfare,” McCain said. “Let’s spread the wealth around.”

Obama reiterated that he would cut taxes for 95% of Americans, raising them only on families making more than $250,000 a year and exempting small business owners. “We both want to cut taxes,” Obama said. “The difference is who we want to cut taxes for. . . . The centerpiece of his economic proposal is to provide $200 billion in additional tax breaks to some of the wealthiest corporations in America.”

Asked about their running mates and their suitability to take over as president, both men vouched for their picks. Obama said Delaware Sen. Joe Biden has never forgotten his working-class roots in Scranton, Pa. McCain praised Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as a maverick who would bring a “breath of fresh air” to Washington.

In his closing statement, McCain again raised doubts about whether Americans could trust Obama, implying the Democrat’s record was not as well known as McCain’s performance as a reformer. “America needs a new direction,” he said, underscoring his break from Bush. “We cannot be satisfied with what we’ve been doing for the last eight years.”

Obama, in closing, hammered his central theme that electing McCain would amount to an extension of the incumbent’s policies. With America in the throes of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, he said that “the biggest risk we could take right now is to adopt the same failed policies and the same failed politics that we’ve seen over the last eight years and somehow expect a different result.”


Barabak reported from San Francisco and Mehta from Hempstead. Times staff writers Michael Finnegan and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.