Final Presidential Debate Intense For the last time in this year's bid for the White House voters saw a face off between contenders Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.). Their final debate at Hofstra University in New York and focused mainly on domestic issues. Americans head to the polls Nov. 4.

Final Presidential Debate Intense

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up in our international briefing, my conversation with a man who says it is time for a new political party in South Africa. Former South African Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota.

But first, here in the U.S., the final debate of the 2008 presidential campaign was held last night. It was the last time Americans will see John McCain and Barack Obama face off before voters head to the polls now just 18 days away. The debate was held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. To give us their take on how the candidates did, we've called Reihan Salam, he's an associate editor at the Atlantic and co-author of "Grand New Party: How Conservatives Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream." We've also called Tejal Patel. She's the editor of the Hofstra University student newspaper, The Chronicle. Welcome to you both.

Ms. TEJAL PATEL (Editor, The Chronicle): Thank you, it's nice to be here.

MARTIN: Tejal, let me start with you. What was the atmosphere on campus in the run-up to the debate?

Ms. PATEL: A lot of excitement and a lot of confusion.

MARTIN: Confusion?

Ms. PATEL: Yeah. There were a lot of security changes, parking changes, building closures, so people weren't very sure where they could go, where they couldn't go. But this morning, or actually yesterday morning, there was a lot of excitement. Classes were canceled but students still woke up early, got out to see what was going on. It was really nice.

MARTIN: It was exciting. So I was going to ask because there's no shortage of political star power in New York. And you know, we think of New Yorkers as being kind of, you know, not very fazed by all this kind of drama. So it was a sense of excitement, people were interested. And what were they interested in?

Ms. PATEL: A lot of the students were interested - there were actually a lot of protests, a lot to do with the environment. And I think a lot of students were also just excited to be on TV. We had all the major news stations so, you know, everyone wanted to be on camera or behind the cameras, behind the anchors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK. That's honest. Do I have it right that you watched the debate in person at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex? You were actually there?

Ms. PATEL: Yes, I was inside the hall.

MARTIN: OK. So were there any moments that stood out for you?

Ms. PATEL: Not really. I mean, the audience, of course, has to be quiet, and there's not really much that the audience can do. I was also rather far back, towards the back of the balcony, so I almost thought it was - it would have been better to watch on TV so I could have seen the candidates, you know, their facial expressions. All I really saw was bodies and hands. But I think it was still nice to be inside to kind of just see what it's like to be inside with all the people, and yeah.

MARTIN: Sure. Reihan, let's get you into the conversation. What were you looking to see last night? Reihan, can we hear you? OK, we're going to wait for Reihan to get settled because we can't hear him.

So - so were there any - Tejal, were there any particular moments that you were looking for? I mean, obviously, I assume that as the editor of the student newspaper, you've been following the campaign. Were there any particular moments or something you were looking for the candidates to say? Was there something you were hoping to be impressed by?

Ms. PATEL: Well, I was really looking for them to talk about energy and the environment, and they did a little but they didn't really expand very much. I mean, I thought, like, most of the debate was them just trying to fight each other off. And you know, their attacks on each other, trying to prove each other wrong.

MARTIN: OK, Reihan, what about you? Can we bring you back into this? What were you looking to see last night? Were there any moments that stood out for you?

We're still having trouble with Reihan. So we'll see if - hopefully we'll be able to get him into the conversation at some point. The tricky thing about this for John McCain is that he went into this debate behind in the polls and that he's been hammering Barack Obama on a personal level, trying to erode confidence in him as the Democratic nominee on the basis of his sort of positions, his character, and so forth.

But he's been paying a price for this, and moderator Bob Schieffer from CBS talked about this. He asked about the negative tone of the debate, and he started off by asking whether they were willing to say to each other what their surrogates or the campaigns have been saying about them. And there was a lengthy of exchange on this. We can't play all of it. We're going to play a portion of it. Here's John McCain first.

(Soundbite of U.S. presidential debate, October 15, 2008)

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; 2008 Republican Presidential Nominee): And the fact is, it's gotten pretty tough. And I regret showing the negative aspects of both campaigns. But the fact is that it has taken many turns which I think are unacceptable. One of them happened just the other day when a man I admire and respect, have written about him, Congressman John Lewis, an American hero, made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history: segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That, to me, was so hurtful. 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.

MARTIN: And here's Senator Obama's response. Again, this is a condensed version. Here it is.

(Soundbite of U.S. presidential debate, October 15, 2008)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; 2008 Democratic Presidential Nominee): Well, look. You know, I think that we expect presidential campaigns to be tough. I think that if you look at the record and the impressions of the American people, 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 hundred percent, John, of your ads, a hundred percent of them have been negative. A hundred - 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. And there is nothing wrong with us having a vigorous debate like we're having tonight about health care, about energy policy, about tax policy. That's the stuff that campaigns should be made of.

MARTIN: We're going to go now to senior Washington editor Ron Elving. He's on the phone. Ron, tell me what - we started our conversation here by pointing out that John McCain's behind in the polls. He's been attacking Obama but he's paid a price for it. So talk to me about how you think he was trying to manage that as he went into the debate tonight and during the debate.

RON ELVING: You're right. He had something to manage. He had a dilemma to try to deal with. Is he going to continue the attack, which had been pressed upon him by his party and his support group, or is he going to try to figure out some way to bridge this gap and be, in some respect, the John McCain of old, the John McCain that we know as somebody who worked equally or close to equally with both parties and who likes to talk about himself as a maverick? That person would obviously be running a somewhat different campaign.

So it was a major item of not just curiosity but real tension going into the debate last night, which John McCain was going to come out on stage? In the main and with very few exceptions, the John McCain we saw last night was the attacker. He was mostly interested in firming up the base behind him because at this point he sees that as a more doable objective. He did not really see the opportunity out there to immediately close the gap in the case of this debate. He thought it was more important to sow doubts about Obama while he still had a big audience and make happy the people who are already for him.

MARTIN: And Ron Elving, what about this - the attempt to sort of bring in Joe the plumber, who was a person who had confronted Senator Obama at an Obama rally? Do you think that there was - that was a useful exchange, that we learned anything as a result of that exchange about the two men's economic policies? Was either of them more or less persuasive on this?

ELVING: I don't think that Joe the plumber is really a teaching tool so much, although he did come in as an example for both of the debaters last night. I think what he is, is an attempt to make the kind of person who would pay higher taxes under the Obama plan look a little different to the voter than the figure 250,000 might conjure up. Most people, when you think of people making over $250,000 a year, are thinking about people who are, you know, professionals, doctors, lawyers, investors - people of that kind or people with inherited money.

That's obviously not a good description of Joe Wurzelbacher, who is the actual Joe the plumber, and we have seen him and he has been out in public. He was on television last night. He is clearly not somebody who is having too much trouble, I didn't think, making up his mind between these two candidates. And he went to a rope line to sort of confront Barack Obama earlier this week or actually last weekend.

So the idea here, and the reason that McCain went back to him over and over and over, was to suggest that ordinary people like you, a plumber, those are the people who are going to be paying more taxes under Barack Obama's plan. You know, he's (unintelligible), of course, the fact they only would do so if they were making over $250,000 a year.

MARTIN: Tejal, can I ask how that exchange struck you?

ELVING: Well, I thought it was...

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I was going to Tejal Patel, our other guest.

ELVING: I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Tejal.

Ms. PATEL: I think - I mean, in terms of that, I don't know that students were really looking to hear that. I mean, I think - well, I think they were looking to hear pretty much what Obama said in helping the middle class. A lot of students at Hofstra, well, are part of the middle class. So I think definitely he...

MARTIN: Did it make any sense to you, I guess, that you think that conversation kind of went a bit above your head?

Ms. PATEL: No, it did make sense. I think - I mean, at least for me, I'm graduating soon, so I'm kind of going to have to move up out of underneath my parents' wings, so I'm going to have to start figuring stuff like that out. It did make sense, but I don't think it was one of the bigger topics for students just yet.

MARTIN: OK, Tejal, final thought from you though. Was there anything that wasn't talked about that you would have liked to have heard talked about?

Ms. PATEL: Not in this one, I don't think. The two things I was looking for that - at least that affects students, were energy and health care, and so they both talked about those things. So I don't think there was anything in this that I was looking for that I didn't hear.

MARTIN: OK. Ron Elving, final thought quickly to you. Was there anything that changed the game last night?

ELVING: I don't think so. I think Barack Obama, once again, seemed cool under fire, went under fire and someone who has a (unintelligible) mind to the challenges of the moment. And it was probably reassuring to independent voters who are still making up their minds.

MARTIN: Thank you. That was senior Washington editor Ron Elving. He joined us on the phone. We also heard from Tejal Patel. She is the editor of the Hofstra University student paper, The Chronicle, and she joined us from our New York bureau. We were sorry that we weren't able to connect with Reihan Salam. We'd hoped to bring you a conversation with him. He's an associate editor at the Atlantic. Thank you all so much for joining us.

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