Last debate finally lives up to its name

09:31, 16 October 2008
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"That`s not true." (McCain to Obama.) "It`s absolutely true." (Obama to McCain.)

The biggest news about the third and final presidential debate: It was a debate!

After a first contest that was a mere rehash of stump speeches, and a second that was a sorry attempt at a town hall meeting, Wednesday`s encounter around a single table gave voters arguably their first — and last — chance to see Barack Obama and John McCain engage in an actual give-and-take on the issues of the day, The Associated Press reported.

"That`s not true." (McCain to Obama.) "It`s absolutely true." (Obama to McCain.) Not elegant thrusts and parries, but it felt refreshingly like real people talking.

The candidates each had their effective moments, and their weak ones too. And while McCain was clearly the aggressor (maybe too aggressive?) and Obama the cooler cucumber (maybe too cool?), that was to be expected.

After all, McCain, straggling in the polls, knew he had to come out swinging — he`d already said he`d whip Obama`s "you-know-what." As for Obama, he only had to remain calm, measured, mistake-free and above all, appear presidential. They both lived up to those expectations, and so their respective supporters are likely to be satisfied.

But how about the undecideds, the swing voters who will decide this election?

"I still don`t know," sighed Peggy Chilton, a 72-year-old independent voter from Los Angeles. "There are things I liked about both of them, and things I didn`t like. And I have to vote by mail too, so I`m going to have to make my stupid mind up in 10 days or so."

There were some awkward visuals, particularly reaction shots of McCain smiling uncomfortably and darting his eyes in obvious frustration, waiting to pounce anew. Obama smiled too when he was frustrated, sometimes perhaps too broadly. But he was clearly not as ruffled as his opponent, even when interrupted repeatedly.

"Each one of them had nonverbal moments that seemed uncomfortable," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. But she thought the debate was a boon for both, though perhaps more for McCain, because both were able to articulate their philosophies on important issues.

And while it`s debatable whether we know anything more now about Barack and John, we sure know a heckuva lot more about Joe — that`s Joe the Plumber, of course, the nation`s newest instant celebrity. (Real name: Joe Wurzelbacher of Toledo, Ohio, who met Obama on the campaign trail and thinks the Democrat`s tax plan would keep him from buying the small business that employs him.)

McCain invoked Joe early on and just kept on reinvoking him. Obama had no choice but to engage Joe too: "I`m happy to talk to you too, Joe, if you`re out there," he said.

Will Joe the Plumber become the "You`re no Jack Kennedy" or the President-Bush-looking-at-his-watch or the Al Gore sigh of this debate? Perhaps. But the substance of the debate will also be remembered, thanks in part to an effective moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS, who asked better initial questions than his predecessors and seized the chance to follow up more.

His question on the negative tenor of the campaign produced the most heated, and fascinating, exchange of the night. Asked whether they`d each be willing to repeat the negative assertions their campaigns have made, McCain did, demanding to know the full extent of Obama`s relationship with William Ayers, a 1960s-era radical, and his ties with ACORN, a liberal group accused of violating federal law as it seeks to register voters.

Obama, in his turn, brought up the more alarming comments heard at McCain-Sarah Palin rallies, including references to him as a "terrorist" and calls to "Kill him."

McCain finally got to say flat out that he was not President Bush. "If you wanted to run against President Bush you should have run four years ago." It was likely his most effective line of the night.

But Obama had his lines too: "The fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Sen. McCain," he said about the Ayers discussion, "says more about your campaign than it says about me."

To one uncommitted voter, Obama came across as more reassuring.

"McCain came across as a little wired, which was unsettling and did not warm me to what he was saying," said David Murray, 34, of Northville, Mich. "Obama sounded like he was in control and responded accordingly. But I`m not convinced either candidate can fix the economy and that is probably the main reason why I am undecided."

For Chilton, the California voter, the evening skewed slightly in favor of McCain. "I don`t like any of the negative stuff at all," she said, "but I thought McCain acquitted himself quite well tonight. I am looking at him anew."

Obama, she said, was "very intelligent and quite erudite — but he didn`t quite inspire me." She hesitated, and sighed. "Then again, McCain didn`t either."

It was back to the drawing board for this voter.

The Associated Press

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