Badly needing to shake up the presidential race, a combative John McCain spent the final presidential debate Wednesday casting Barack Obama as a tax raiser and nasty campaigner with unsavory associations.
McCain's smiles and chuckles did nothing to disguise his disdain for Obama, as he questioned the Democratic nominee's connections to 1960s radical Will Ayers and with ACORN, the community organizer group whose voter registration drives have drawn accusations of fraud.
"We need to know the full extent of that (Ayers) relationship,'' said McCain, sitting beside Obama at a table. "We need to know the full extent of Sen. Obama's relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."
Obama calmly brushed off the attacks, saying he had nothing to do with improper registration forms submitted by ACORN and that he served with Ayers on an education reform board in Chicago along with numerous prominent civic leaders. He pointedly listed his current associates, including financier Warren Buffet and Republican Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar.
"Those are the people, Democrats and Republicans, who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House. And I think the fact that (Ayers) has become such an important part of your campaign, Sen. McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me,'' Obama said.
Lagging in the polls and struggling to find a consistent campaign message amid economic turmoil, McCain needed this final presidential debate to help change the trajectory of the campaign. He has lost ground in national and critical state polls while ramping up criticism of Obama, but McCain appeared to have decided that aggressively raising doubts about Obama was still his best strategy.
The candidates were seated next to each other at a table with CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer, a format that often cuts down on antagonistic exchanges. Not this time. Their final joint appearance before a nationwide audience was the most hostile yet.
McCain challenged Obama to name a key issue in which he had stood up to Democratic leaders in Washington — Obama named a few votes that had broad support — and the Arizona senator sprang when Obama once again brought up the country's economic decline during the Bush administration.
"Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush," McCain said. ''If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I'm going to give a new direction to this economy in this country."
Responded Obama: "If I occasionally have 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 repeatedly invoked an Ohio man — "Joe the plumber" - who recently told Obama he worried his taxes would rise under Obama. McCain suggested most Americans should fear the same thing.
"What you want to do to Joe the plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business,'' McCain said. "The whole premise behind Sen. Obama's plans are class warfare, let's spread the wealth around."
Obama said the premise of his plan is to focus tax relief on the middle class, rather the wealthiest Americans.
"If you make less than a quarter-million dollars a year, then you will not see your income tax go up, your capital gains tax go up, your payroll tax. Not one dime. And 95 percent of working families, 95 percent of you out there, will get a tax cut,'' he said.
The conventional wisdom had been that in a year when voters are hungry for change, the general election would be a referendum on Obama and whether he was sufficiently seasoned for the job. But the collapse on Wall Street refocused the campaign to economic issues, which was never a McCain specialty and Wednesday's debate at Hofstra University in New York was really about McCain.
Obama's job Wednesday night was simply not to blow it; McCain needed to demonstrate a reassuring command of economic and domestic matters and he kept swinging at Obama for 90 minutes.
"I don't think there's any doubt that Sen. Obama wants to restrict trade and he wants to raise taxes," McCain said. "And the last president of the United States that tried that was Herbert Hoover, and we went from a deep recession into a depression.''
And with prompting from a Schieffer question, McCain criticized Obama for running a negative campaign. McCain called on Obama to repudiate Democratic Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights pioneer, who compared the McCain-Palin's rhetoric to George Wallace's.
Obama, showing little emotion throughout the debate, scoffed at the negative campaigning charge.
"One hundred percent, John, of your ads, 100 percent of them have been negative," said Obama.
"That's not true," McCain retorted.
"It is true," Obama said, noting that at a recent Sarah Palin rally in Clearwater, one supporter reportedly shouted "kill him" after Palin mentioned Obama and Ayers.
A recent study of ads by the University of Wisconsin found that nearly all, though not 100 percent, of McCain's TV ads were negative for one particular week, while roughly one third of Obama's ads are negative. In other weeks, Obama had more negative ads. But Obama is paying for more TV ads, so both campaigns have been airing roughly the same number of negative ads.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8241.