Final McCain, Obama Debate Personal, Pointed

Election Day is less than three weeks away, and many people tuned in to Wednesday's debate to decide which candidate to vote for. Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama sat across from each other at Hofstra University in New York. They both got in some good jabs, but there were no game-changing moments.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The presidential candidates took the stage on another day when stock markets plunged. They debated taxes. They debated the tone of each other's campaigns. They also took time to debate a man named William Ayers and another named Joe the plumber. Through much of the night, Republican John McCain was the one throwing punches, and the many people watching included NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: Last night the gloves finally did come off with both men sitting side by side at a small, round table facing the moderator, CBS's Bob Schieffer. The tension between them was obvious, and the debate got pointed and personal. Schieffer asked them about the tone of the campaign. The Obama camp has said McCain was losing his bearings, that he was erratic, out of touch, and angry. McCain's team has called Obama dishonorable, dangerous, and disrespectful, and said he palled around with terrorists.

Mr. BOB SCHIEFFER (Television Journalist, CBS News): 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?

LIASSON: McCain went first. He said it was unacceptable that Congressman John Lewis had accused McCain and his running mate of engaging in the kind of racial politics of segregationists like George Wallace.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): And Senator Obama, you didn't repudiate those remarks. Every time there's been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them. I hope that Senator Obama will repudiate those remarks that were made by Congressman John Lewis, very unfair and totally inappropriate.

LIASSON: McCain went on to say he would run a truthful campaign.

Senator MCCAIN: This is a tough campaign. And it's a matter of fact that Senator Obama has spent more money on negative ads than any political campaign in history. And I can prove it.

LIASSON: While it's true Obama has spent more money on negative ads than any candidate in history, it's only because he's spent more money on advertising in general than any candidate in history. Obama had an accusation of his own about advertising.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Bob, your network just did a poll showing that two-thirds of the American people think that Senator McCain is running a negative campaign versus one-third of mine. And a hundred percent, John, of your ads - a hundred percent of them - have been negative.

Senator MCCAIN: It's not true.

Senator OBAMA: It absolutely is true. And now, I think the American people are less interested in our hurt feelings during the course of the campaign than addressing the issues that matter to them so deeply.

LIASSON: According to a study by the University of Wisconsin, 100 percent of McCain's ads have been negative, but only in the last 30 days. McCain, who has been vastly outspent by Obama, has run many positive ads in the past. On Tuesday, McCain said that he would bring up Obama's relationship with William Ayers, an unrepentant former Weather Underground bomber. And last night, McCain did.

Senator MCCAIN: Mr. Ayers, I don't care about an old, washed-up terrorist. But as Senator Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship. We need to know the full extent of Senator 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. The same front outfit organization that your campaign gave $832,000 for, quote, "lighting and site selection." So, all of these things need to be examined, of course.

LIASSON: Obama said he had no involvement with ACORN's registration drive. He represented the group which advocates for low-income people in 1995 in a case involving a federal voter registration law. And he was ready with a defense for the attack on his relationship with Ayers who he said had never been part of his campaign.

Senator OBAMA: The reason I think that it's important to just get these facts out is because the allegation that Senator McCain has continually made is that somehow my associations are troubling. Let me tell you who I associate with. On economic policy, I associate with Warren Buffett and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. If I'm interested in figuring out my foreign policy, I associate myself with my running mate, Joe Biden, or with Dick Lugar, the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or General Jim Jones, the former supreme allied commander of NATO.

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 this has become such an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me.

LIASSON: McCain also had to defend himself from a guilt by association attack, one that Obama has been making relentlessly throughout this campaign. In fact it's Obama's central argument against McCain that he represents nothing more than a third Bush term.

Senator MCCAIN: Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you want 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. Senator Obama talks about voting for budgets. He voted twice for a budget resolution that increases the taxes on individuals making $42,000 a year.

LIASSON: Obama rejected that charge, saying everyone who has looked at it has disputed the claim.

Senator OBAMA: Even FOX News disputes it, and that doesn't happen very often when it comes to accusations about me. So the fact of the matter is that if I have occasionally 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. Now, you've shown independence, commendable independence, on some key issues like torture, for example. And I give you enormous credit for that. But when it comes to economic policies, essentially what you are proposing is eight more years of the same thing.

LIASSON: On a day when the Dow Jones Average had its second-worst point drop in history, both candidates were asked about their new proposals to address the economic crisis. McCain wants to cut taxes on capital gains and unemployment benefits. Obama wants tax cuts for creating jobs and new spending on public works. McCain challenged Obama on his plans to cut taxes, citing a particular American voter.

Senator MCCAIN: I would like to mention that a couple of days ago, Senator Obama was out in Ohio. And he had an encounter with a guy who's a plumber. The name is Joe Wurzelberger.

LIASSON: McCain said Obama's plans would deny Wurzelbacher, the correct pronunciation, his goal of buying his own plumbing company.

Senator MCCAIN: And 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.

SCHIEFFER: Is that what you want to do?

Senator MCCAIN: That's what Joe believes.

Senator OBAMA: He's been watching some ads of Senator McCain's.

LIASSON: And with that a star was born. Joe the Plumber became the stand-in for average Americans struggling to stay afloat in a difficult economy. Over the course of the debate, Obama and McCain invoked Joe's name more than two dozen times.

Senator OBAMA: Now, the conversation I had with Joe the Plumber, what I essentially said to him was, five years ago, when you were in a position to buy your business, you needed a tax cut then.

Senator MCCAIN: I want Joe the Plumber to spread that wealth around.

Senator OBAMA: (Unintelligible) tax cuts to Joe the Plumber before...

Senator MCCAIN: Now, my old buddy, Joe, Joe the Plumber, is out there.

Senator OBAMA: And I'm happy to talk to you, Joe, too, if you're out there.

Senator MCCAIN: Hey, Joe, you're rich. Congratulations.

LIASSON: There was an awful lot both men wanted to do for Joe the Plumber, but neither was willing to tell the moderator which of their plans they would scale back to deal with the new demands of the financial crisis. Obama came into this debate with a lead in the polls that's been growing steadily since the debates began three weeks ago. His main goal has been simple, to reassure voters that he is a steady and credible commander in chief.

McCain's job has been much harder, to separate himself from President Bush, offer his answer to an economic crisis that many voters blame on his party, and at the same time reverse the dynamic of the race by sowing doubts about Obama's readiness to be president. McCain went out at it aggressively and methodically, but Obama was able to deflect most of his attacks. This was the last time the two men will be on stage together, and what both of them agreed has been a very tough campaign has just 19 days to go. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Hempstead, New York.

MONTAGNE: To hear last night's debate, or to hear it again, download the audio at npr.org.

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Candidates Spar Over Policies, Negative Campaign

More On McCain

Sen. John McCain i i

hide captionSen. John McCain speaks during the debate. This is the final meeting of the two candidates before voters go to the polls on Nov. 4.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Sen. John McCain

Sen. John McCain speaks during the debate. This is the final meeting of the two candidates before voters go to the polls on Nov. 4.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

More On Obama

Sen. Barack Obama i i

hide captionSen. Barack Obama speaks during the third presidential debate.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Sen. Barack Obama

Sen. Barack Obama speaks during the third presidential debate.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
McCain and Obama onstage during the debate. i i

hide captionThe two candidates sparred over foreign policy, the economy and negative campaign advertising.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
McCain and Obama onstage during the debate.

The two candidates sparred over foreign policy, the economy and negative campaign advertising.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The final debate of the 2008 campaign featured some of the sharpest exchanges to date between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain. The tension between the two was heightened by the fact that for the first time in this debate season, the two men were seated right next to each other.

Wednesday night's debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., focused primarily on domestic issues, and not surprisingly, the discussion turned immediately to the economy. In his first question, moderater Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked the two candidates to compare their plans for solving the economic crisis.

McCain defended his plan to buy up $300 billion worth of bad mortgages, and he criticized Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson for not taking this step. Obama said he wanted to focus his efforts on assistance to the middle class and quickly outlined his plans to create more jobs and cut taxes.

McCain accused Obama of relying on "class warfare" and asked Obama why he would want to raise taxes at a time of economic distress. Obama insisted he is planning to raise taxes only for the richest Americans. Obama's tax plan would be better for the bottom 80 percent of Americans by income. McCain's would favor the top 20 percent of Americans by income. Obama said some Americans, such as investor Warren Buffett, could afford to pay a little more to finance a middle-class tax cut.

The 90-minute debate began at 9 p.m. Eastern, just a few hours after the Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 700 points, nearly wiping out a record gain on Monday.

Abortion And Judicial Nominees

The two candidates had what may be their longest exchange about the issue of abortion. They differed clearly in their answers to a question about whether they would apply a "litmus test" to Supreme Court nominees on whether they support the right to an abortion.

McCain said that while he opposed the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, he would not apply a litmus test to nominees. But he said he believed the states should be allowed to decide abortion issues.

Obama said that the right to an abortion should no more be open to states' interpretation then any other right, such as freedom of speech. He insisted that only a woman and her doctor should decide whether to choose abortion.

Sparring Over The Bush Legacy

McCain tried several times to seize the initiative and spoke directly to Obama. When Obama said that the Bush administration was responsible for the current budget deficit, McCain turned to him and said, "Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."

Obama linked McCain to President Bush over and over, saying that his Republican rival had backed the administration's economic policies.

But McCain underscored his maverick status, saying he has the scars to prove that he has fought the president's policies when he felt it was important. McCain said he had opposed the administration by emphasizing the need to fight global warming and that he had fought the use of torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists.

Courting 'Joe The Plumber'

On health care, the two went over some familiar ground. McCain accused Obama of planning to fine any business that does not provide health care to its employees. Obama reassured "Joe the Plumber" that small businesses would be exempt from such requirements. The two argued throughout the debate over whether "Joe" would be better off under an Obama or a McCain administration.

"Joe" is, in fact, Joe Wurzelbacher, who is trying to buy a plumbing business in Toledo, Ohio. Several days ago, Wurzelbacher told Obama that the Democrat's tax plan would keep him from buying that business. Throughout the debate, "Joe" came to symbolize average Americans trying to run a business.

The two candidates' positions on education are not that far apart, but during the debate they sought to emphasize their differences on a topic that has largely dropped out of the campaign.

Obama said education was key to the country's economic future and outlined plans to give college students a $4,000 tuition tax credit. Obama also said that spending more on early childhood education would save money in the long run by producing higher student achievement. Obama also complained that No Child Left Behind was a good idea that was underfunded. He said the federal government needs to step up with more funding for education.

McCain said that throwing money at the problem was not the solution. He said the answer for low-income parents was to give them the ability to choose another school if their local school was failing. McCain said that districts that have offered more choice have shown success and that charter schools offer an important alternative to failing public schools. Obama said that he, too, has been a supporter of charters.

The Negativity Blame Game

The two traded shots over who was responsible for the negative tone of the campaign. McCain accused Obama of spending more on negative ads than any candidate in history. He also denounced as "hurtful" remarks made by Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights leader who compared some tactics of McCain supporters to those used by segregationist George Wallace.

Obama said he had distanced himself from Lewis' comments. And he charged that every ad McCain had run in recent weeks was negative. According to the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, "nearly 100 percent" of the ads that McCain ran in the week of Sept. 28 to Oct. 4 were negative. Obama's ads in that week were 34 percent negative.

However, McCain was correct in saying that Obama has spent more on negative ads than he has. What McCain did not note is that Obama has spent more overall, since the Democrat opted out of the public financing system and can therefore raise unlimited amounts of funds.

McCain also defended one of the more controversial charges that he has raised about Obama: McCain said Obama's relationship with William Ayers deserves to be investigated. Ayers is a college professor who has admitted to bombing the Pentagon while a member of the Weather Underground in the 1960s. He has served on a community board in Chicago with Obama.

Obama tried to explain that he had only a distant association with Ayers, whose involvement with the Weather Underground dated back to when Obama was 8 years old. Obama said he would rather be known for his associations with leading military leaders and others who, he said, would serve as his advisers if he wins the White House.

McCain was under intense pressure to use the debate as a springboard to overcome Obama's lead. A Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll released Tuesday showed Obama with a 6-point advantage, while a Washington Post-ABC News poll from Monday showed him with a 10-point lead among likely voters.

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