Before the final presidential debate at Hofstra University on the evening of Oct. 15, Representative Pete King of New York, a vocal McCain supporter, said that there was “no silver bullet” John McCain could use to turn his candidacy around. He had to be strong, clear and resolute during the debate. His advice, in short, was “assert your personality.”
That, at least, he did. The first thing McCain did when he walked onto the stage for the final presidential debate against Barack Obama was make a point to look him in the eye, something he avoided doing in the previous debate, and said, “Nice to see you.”
He also sought to cloak his attacks in folksy appeals to “Joe the plumber”— referring to Joe Wurzelbacher, a plumber Obama had had a tense exchange with at an event in Ohio.
McCain, desperate to connect with an electorate that does not think he will be the best steward of the economy, repeatedly addressed himself to the plumber, saying at one point that Obama’s tax plan would hurt “Joe the plumber and millions more like him.”
If the man he had met in Ohio actually did believe this, Obama countered, it was because “he’s been watching some ads of Senator McCain.” Instead, he reiterated his plan to cut taxes for Americans making less than $250,000 a year.
McCain came back and said that Obama told “Joe the plumber” that he wanted to “spread the wealth around,” something he characterized as “class warfare.”
“I want Joe the plumber to spread the wealth around,” McCain said, leaning back in his chair and smiling.
Later in the debate, McCain brought Joe back up again and again, saying, “Hey, Joe, you’re rich congratulations,” because he apparently wanted to buy his own business, and “My old buddy Joe the plumber is out there.”
McCain’s sense of urgency during the night was palpable, and he turned virtually every answer into an attack. Obama smiled his way through many of them.
Besides addressing himself more directly to voters, McCain also sought to distance himself from Obama’s most deadly line of attack, saying, “Senator Obama, I am not President Bush — if you wanted to run against George Bush you should have run four years ago.”
Obama responded: “If I have occasionally mistaken your policies with George Bush’s policies,” on the economy, Obama said, it was because “when it comes to economic proposals, essentially what you are proposing are eight more years of the same thing.”
When moderator Bob Schieffer asked whether the candidates were willing to say all the nasty things their campaigns have been saying to one another’s faces, both said one had to understand a presidential campaign would be “tough.” But then McCain brought up comments made by Representative John Lewis, who had compared the rabble-rousing language at Sarah Palin rallies to the mood during segregation.
“That, to me, was so hurtful,” McCain said. He went on to accuse Obama of spending more money on negative ads than any other candidate in history and then, accurately, accused him of lying when he said he would accept public funding if McCain did.
“You didn’t keep your word,” he said, adding. “You didn’t tell the American people the truth.”
Obama essentially responded by calling McCain a wimp. “The American people are less interested in our hurt feelings during the course of the campaign,” he said, than in how the candidates could get the economy back on its feet.
But McCain didn’t want to let it go. He brought up Bill Ayers, “an old washed-up terrorist” and characterized the group ACORN as being “on the verge” of perpetrating one of the largest cases of “voter fraud” in history.
Obama was not visibly rattled by either allegation, and distanced himself from both Ayers and ACORN. He also argued, again, that McCain was opting to spend time on “tit-for-tat” distractions rather than the economy. The focus on Ayers, he said, “says more about your campaign, Senator McCain, than it does about me.”
(When McCain rejoined, “My campaign is about getting this economy back on track,” the shoulders of more than a few reporters in the media center shook visibly.)
By the end of the night McCain seemed frustrated, referring mockingly to the “eloquence of Mr. Obama” as a way of suggesting elusiveness.
“I think we’ve had a very healthy discussion,” McCain said at the end.