THE third and final debate, which took place at Hofstra University, New York, was a firecracker of a show, as riveting as the two previous meetings were soporific. The candidates discussed substantive issues. They exchanged sharp blows. And, most of the time, they avoided reciting their talking points.
Some of the credit for this belongs to the moderator, Bob Schieffer, a CBS News anchor, who asked serious questions and even, occasionally, upbraided the candidates for not answering them. But most of it belongs to John McCain. Mr. McCain knew that this was his last best chance to do something dramatic to shake up a race that is threatening to turn into a rout — and he came out swinging, pummeling away at Mr. Obama for all he was worth.
Mr. McCain drew sharp contrasts with his opponent. He insisted that Mr. Obama believes that the government has the answers to America’s problems whereas Mr. McCain puts his trust in ordinary people (in one amusing slip of the tongue he seemed to address Mr. Obama as “Senator Government.”) He dwelt at length on an offhand comment that Mr. Obama made to a small-businessman called Joe the Plumber about “spreading the wealth about,” instantly turning Joe into the most famous plumber since the operatives who broke into the Watergate complex.
Mr. McCain managed to land some good jabs on his rival. He pointed out that he had broken his promise to take public financing for his campaign (and thus limit campaign spending). He noted that Mr. Obama’s solution to every problem is to spend more money. He attacked Mr. Obama for (unfairly) pretending that there is no difference between him and the present incumbent. “I am not President Bush,” he said at one point. “If you wanted to run against President Bush you should have run four years ago.”
All good stuff. But Mr. McCain also made two big mistakes. Bringing up Mr. Obama’s association with Bill Ayers, a former terrorist made him look petty on a day on which the Dow Jones had lost 8 percent of its value and people have much bleaker issues on their minds. The second — and more serious — lay in his body language. Mr. McCain let his contempt for the younger man shine through, harrumphing, grimacing, smirking and goggling his eyes whenever Mr. Obama got a chance to speak. The whole performance was reminiscent of Al Gore’s sighing in his debate with George Bush in 2000, which many people think contributed to his defeat.
Mr. Obama’s performance during all this was remarkable. He remained calm and unflustered. He listened respectfully to his opponent. He took every opportunity to change the subject to economics and the woes of the average American. He even turned Mr. McCain’s assertion that he associated with Mr. Ayers to his advantage, claiming that the people he associates with, on economic issues, are Paul Volcker and Warren Buffett. If many of his arguments were weak — he gave no sense of how he would reconcile his spending plans with America’s giant deficits — his body language was impeccable.
The instant polls all gave a big victory to Mr. Obama. Mr. McCain made the debate exciting, but Mr. Obama got the better of the evening, surely increasing his already high chances of victory in November.