Joe the Plumber was of little use

Times Television Critic

Next on “Access Hollywood,” Joe the Plumber -- the guy who occupied so much of Wednesday night’s presidential debate.

Mere minutes into the final presidential debate, John McCain evoked the blue-collar man as a potential victim of Barack Obama’s tax plan -- one that would prevent him from buying his own business and, as the Republican candidate put it, from “living the American dream.”

Me, I want to know more. How much is ol’ Joe pulling in, anyway? What company is he trying to buy? A two-man operation or, say, Roto-Rooter? This, of course, we may never know.


But what we do know, for sure now -- courtesy of Joe the Plumber -- is that Obama is a liberal and McCain is a conservative. So thank you, Joe the Plumber.

Despite moderator Bob Schieffer’s touching opening request for original material, the debate was an amped-up greatest hits -- a mix of the previous debates and the campaign itself. Obama stuck with his cool, calm explanations and McCain reclaimed some of his signature fire.

Three sentences into the evening, Obama made his case for saving the middle-class and stuck to it through thick and thin.

McCain, on the other hand, had several things he wanted to get off his chest.

“I am not President Bush,” he declared, albeit without the conviction he brought to pleading Joe’s case. “If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.”

Certainly, there was more of the angry McCain in this debate than there was in the previous two; even his voice was louder and less Reaganesque. But viewers looking for the Arizona senator to kick Obama’s you-know-what were no doubt disappointed.

Finally, a half-hour in, Schieffer asked the question everyone was waiting for -- would the two candidates now make the same accusations their campaigns and running mates have been leveling?

McCain strangely chose to go on the attack and said he was disappointed at Obama’s silence in the face of comments that compared him to George Wallace.

Obama pointed out that he had repudiated the remarks and moved quickly to the high road, arguing that voters were less concerned with the candidates’ hurt feelings than with solving economic problems.

“I don’t mind being attacked for the next three weeks,” Obama said, sounding like the embodiment of benevolence. “What the American people can’t afford, though, is four more years of failed policy.”

It’s hard to imagine that McCain had planned to give the Illinois senator such an easy lob; it allowed Obama not only to look gracious, but to point out that all the recent polls indicate that Americans feel McCain has been too negative.

Never before have the two men been in such direct opposition, both in policy and in personality. Obama remained cool, even in the face of what seemed like intentional baiting by McCain, who on several occasions praised Obama’s “eloquence” as if it were a synonym for duplicity.

Meanwhile, after about a half-hour of self-restraint, McCain at times could not contain himself, muttering and issuing small grunts. The split-screen -- used by some cable news stations -- was not McCain’s friend. In contrast to Obama’s winning smile, McCain’s eye-widening and explosive snorts undercut his tone and made him seem at times simply rude.

But if it came down to watching those reaction shots and that crazy graph that CNN insists is significant, well, I’ll take the snorts every time.