A combative John McCain zeroed in on Barack Obama throughout their third and final presidential debate Wednesday night, attacking his opponent as a liberal who wants to raise taxes, increase spending, and restrict trade, and who would adopt policies that would make the current economic crisis worse.
Obama, leading in the presidential race nationally and in most of the key battleground states, stayed calm and collected despite the onslaught. He focused on two of his central campaign themes—that he would promote and protect the middle class and that McCain would continue the unpopular policies of President Bush.
But McCain responded sharply, "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. 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 and this country." In his summation, McCain also said, "America needs a new direction. We cannot be satisfied with what's been going on for the last eight years." He said he always puts "country first" and asked voters for "the opportunity to serve again." He faulted Obama and the Bush administration for supporting profligate federal spending and added: "Throwing money at the problem is not the answer."
For his part, Obama would not back off. "I don't mind being attacked for the next three weeks," he said calmly. "What the American people can't afford, though, is four more years of failed economic policies." Obama said the nation was suffering through "the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," which he blamed largely on the Republicans. But, he said, "our brightest days are still ahead," and he pledged to fight for the middle class to create jobs, lift wages, and improve the healthcare system and education. He said the future will require America to "renew a spirit of sacrifice and responsibility and service," and he promised to "work every single day tirelessly on your behalf."
A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 58 percent of debate watchers thought Obama did the best job in the debate, and 31 percent preferred McCain. Those who had a favorable impression of Obama increased from 63 percent to 66 percent. Those with a favorable impression of McCain dropped from 51 to 49 percent.
Similarly, a CBS poll found that 53 percent of uncommitted voters said Obama won; 22 percent said it was McCain, and 24 percent viewed the debate as a draw. Before the debate, 54 percent thought Obama shared their values, and 63 percent thought that way afterward. Beforehand, 53 percent said McCain shared their values, and 56 percent thought so afterward.
If those results hold up over the next few days, it will mean that debate watchers believed Obama won all three debates, according to such "instant" surveys conducted after each face-off.
Wednesday night's showdown between a hard-hitting McCain and a counterpunching Obama didn't seem to generate much momentum for the underdog Republican. And it's unclear how McCain can now catch Obama in the remaining 2½ weeks before Election Day on November 4.
The debate was in some ways overshadowed by another huge down day on Wall Street earlier Wednesday, when the Dow Jones industrial average fell 733.08, or 7.9 percent, the second-biggest drop ever. This again reminded voters of the economic meltdown, a problem that most Americans think Obama is better equipped to solve, according to the polls.
The two candidates generated more sparks than in their first two debates, but neither made a serious gaffe. They sat next to each other and appeared on split screen for much of the encounter as the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS, encouraged them to spar on one issue after another. Obama often smiled broadly as he watched his opponent fire off his attacks. McCain, by contrast, reacted more strongly, occasionally grimacing, scowling, interrupting, or raising his eyebrows and shaking his head in mock surprise or disagreement.
McCain attacked Obama's voting record, both as an Illinois state legislator and as a U.S. senator, and portrayed his philosophy as too far left on social issues, including Obama's support for a woman's right to choose an abortion. Obama argued that late-term abortions should be allowed if the health of the mother is jeopardized. McCain said the health of the mother is sometimes defined too loosely in order to justify more abortions. This position may help McCain with conservative Republicans, but it could hurt him among pro-choice women, an important group of swing voters.