The third and final debate between John McCain and Barack Obama was feistier and more spirited. The questions were better, the candidates more passionate, and the notion of who won and who lost not instantly apparent.
One thing is certain: This will no doubt be known as the “Joe” debate, where a “Joe the plummer” was invoked repeatedly, as if they had stolen the script from Disney’s little-seen summer movie “Swing Vote.”
In fact, “Joe” is a real person, Joe Wurzelbacher of Toledo, Ohio, but he became the latest in a long-line of standard working class figureheads that all campaigns try to appeal to in the closing days of the race. Worried about his business and new taxes, he met Obama over the weekend, expressing doubt about his fiscal policies.
Looking into the camera, McCain said, “Joe, I want to tell you, I’ll not only help you buy that business that you worked your whole life for and I’ll keep your taxes low and I’ll provide available and affordable health care for you and your employees. And I will not stand for a tax increase on small business income.”
Obama did the same. “Not only do 98 percent of small businesses make less than $250,000, but I also want to give them additional tax breaks, because they are the drivers of the economy. They produce the most jobs.”
Such “Joe” moments were brazen and just plain bizarre, but they did upstage what would otherwise have been a debate that otherwise was a push-pull between the darker aspects of negative politics and the loftier appeals of their campaign rhetoric.
Each candidate accenuated the impressions that already were hardening, at least in media coverage and on late night talk shows. Obama was cool and collected; McCain alternated between tough and touchy.
Moderator Bob Schieffer had more success than his predecessors in pinning down each candidate on some of the issues, although it was tough to see how either McCain or Obama’s proposed spending cuts would go that far to easing the deficits and the new burden of the bailout. Yet seated with the candidates at a circular table at Hofstra University, Schieffer was less constrained, particularly when it came to challenging each candidate on the negative tone of the campaign.
“Are each of you tonight willing to sit at this table and say to each other’s face what your campaigns and the people in your campaigns have said about each other?”
The answers didn’t signal harmony ahead.
McCain brought up favorite figure William Ayers, the former Weatherman who sat on a foundation board with Obama: “I don’t care about an old washed up terrorist. But as Sen Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship.”
The moment was McCain’s, no doubt. But Obama felt more at ease transitioning from offense to defense, smoothly smiling as McCain hit him on Ayers as well as ACORN (the former being an ex-weatherman, the latter a voting rights org).
McCain had moments of great clarity on energy independence and education, but he otherwise couldn’t seem to get the words out fast enough as he recited a long list of grievances: Obama’s ads, John Lewis, even T-shirts at Obama rallies, among other things.
“Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago,” he sniffed at one point, in a line sure to be replayed in debate recaps.
Obama had a few gripes himself, including the fact that some McCain supporters have been shouting “kill him” and “terrorist” at the mention of his name.
But rather than dwell on some of McCain’s attacks, Obama tried to redirect the debate to the economy and how “to solve the key problems we are facing.”
Isn’t that what Joe would want?
It’s hard to know. Joe spent much of the evening in Toledo with satellite trucks parked out front of his home, taking in what he called all of the “surreal” attention of the evening. He seems to be leaning toward McCain, but wouldn’t reveal his pick, just as “Swing Vote” never disclosed its ending. “That’s for me and a button to know,” Joe told the Associated Press.