McCain Fails to Trip Up Obama Over Joe the Plumber

Eye-rolling demeanor signaled McCain's frustrations in the last presidential candidates' debate.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, looks at Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, during the presidential debate, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

McCain made a pitch that he would lead the country in a new direction.

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No, John McCain didn't deliver the "game-changer" he needed. He failed to muster the bravura "last chance" performance his supporters longed for or to launch a "new McCain" who would attract undecided voters in the campaign's homestretch.

And it wasn't that the GOP nominee didn't frequently hit his paces in last night's debate, from tax cuts and that ubiquitous what's-his-name plumber to "I am not President Bush." What McCain suffered from most was demeanor deficit.

Under the bright lights on the Hofstra University stage and in split-screen television coverage seen by most viewers at home, McCain looked like the quintessential exasperated older brother who can't believe anyone is taking his kid brother seriously.

There was copious eye-rolling. Frequent and exaggerated wide-eyed "I can't believe what he's saying" looks. And, as the debate progressed, a stiff, look-straight-ahead uncomfortableness that was in marked contrast to Barack Obama's trademark unflappable calm, which last night was modestly spiced with some head shakes and "there he goes again" grins.

McCain's frustration also bubbled over into his delivery. It was particularly evident during a moment in the later stage of the debate during a discussion about the Supreme Court and abortion.

After Obama defended legal late-term abortions if the life and health of the mother were at stake, McCain, who supports a ban with no exceptions, derisively spit out the word "health" while miming quotation marks. An exception for "health" of women, he suggested, signified an "extreme pro-abortion position."

And if he's still fighting for some of the up-for-grabs women's vote, his demeanor was equally dismissive when Obama raised the issue of Lilly Ledbetter, a victim of pay discrimination who lost a landmark equal-pay-for-equal-work case before the Supreme Court when a majority of justices ruled she filed her complaint too late. The court, Obama said "has to stand up, if nobody else will," if a woman like Ledbetter, who discovered the discrimination after the statute of limitations had expired, is being treated unfairly.

McCain's response: If Ledbetter had won, it would have "waived the statute of limitations...a trial lawyer's dream."

In the end, McCain made a pitch that he would lead the country in a new direction. He said he'd be "honored and humbled" to join a "long line of McCains" who have served their country. But McCain's demeanor deficit last night telegraphed clearly that the constitutional process that leads to the White House just really pisses him off. And so does that pesky younger brother.