With his polling numbers and the economic crisis worsening by the day, Republican Sen. John McCain used the third and final presidential debate Wednesday night to paint his domestic agenda as good for the middle class and mischaracterize Sen. Barack Obama as bad for "Joe the Plumber.'' But McCain's strongest debate performance could not compensate for the shortcomings of his policies.
On the economy, health care, federal spending and energy, McCain spun conservative proposals that would fail to produce significant change or are out of touch with reality. He finally declared, "I am not President Bush.'' But those listening closely did not hear much difference between the unpopular incumbent and the Republican nominee on tax cuts or other key issues.
In their last national appearance together before the election in 20 days, the candidates offered Americans two distinct visions for the future and two very different personalities.
Obama's challenge Wednesday night was to avoid making mistakes, to show the same command of facts and cool temperament that has led millions of Americans to view the Illinois senator as presidential. He explained his proposals for a middle-class tax cut, diversifying the nation's energy supply and expanding health care to working families and the uninsured. On the same day a new poll showed that voters' confidence in the federal government has reached an all-time low, Obama spoke with a reassuring confidence. He may have been a bit too professorial at the beginning, but he warmed up and offered a particularly strong closing that balanced the challenges ahead with an optimism that they can be met with sacrifice and commitment.
As expected, McCain was the aggressor. He was particularly effective in the first half-hour in appealing to the middle class while defending tax policies that actually benefit the wealthy. But when the questioning turned to campaign attacks by both sides, McCain could not contain his anger and lost much of his momentum. He again floated some dark connection between Obama and 1960s-era antigovernment radical Bill Ayers. When that punch failed to ruffle Obama, McCain ramped up his intensity. The split television screen displayed a candidate who gradually appeared more frustrated, condescending and dismissive of one who would not take the bait. Those facial expressions will not play well in the coming days.
The final debate was the most entertaining and informative of the three. Obama offered progressive views, from a broad energy plan to financial incentives for college students to a defense of abortion rights. In an election that may be decided by independent voters, McCain emphasized conservative views more appealing to the Republican base, from opposing abortion rights to supporting tuition vouchers.
The debate solidified the support for both candidates and left the shrinking middle to pick between clear choices.