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US: Amid gloom, Obama lights up final debate

October 16, 2008 10:39 IST

As stock markets around Asia plunged Thursday morning (IST) in response to Wednesday's massive sell-off on Wall Street, US Presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama battled fiercely for 90 minutes over economic issues and America's future in the third and final presidential debate. Though Senator McCain began strongly, he faded in the last 30 minutes, when Senator Obama gained confidence and energy. An initial CNN poll of Democrats, Republicans and Independents/'Undecideds' found Barack Obama the winner 58%-31%, a 27-point victory. 

While the first two debates were at times testy and contentious, many pundits, bloggers and commentators had complained that the candidates were too vague and conservative in their responses.

But, thanks in part to the pointed questions of debate moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News, Wednesday night the two candidates rolled up their sleeves and engaged in confrontational, personal and nuanced discussions.

Early on, with the global financial crisis serving as the backdrop, the candidates debated general economic and budgetary issues, and Senator McCain performed surprisingly well, forcing Obama into convoluted and defensive answers. He advocated fiscal discipline and the necessity for a "spending freeze" in Washington to help cut the federal budget deficit, which he pledged to balance in four years or less. He also sternly asserted "I am not President Bush''.

Meanwhile, Obama stuck to the themes of his campaign, tossing out well-worn phrases like "eight years of failed policies" and "fundamental change", but seemed listless and professorial, a problem he faced in his clashes with Senator Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party primary race.

Bizarrely, throughout the first half of the debate both candidates repeatedly spoke into the camera to a man named 'Joe the Plumber'. While Joe is an actual Ohio man who had earlier asked Obama during canvassing  why he would pay higher taxes as a small business owner under an Obama tax plan, the candidates seemed to use him as a composite character, an everyday American.

On Obama's economic plans, McCain said, "We're going to take Joe's money, give it to Senator Obama, and let him spread the wealth around. I want Joe the Plumber to spread the wealth around. Why would you want to increase anybody's taxes right now? Why would you want to do that to anyone, anyone in America, when we have such a tough time?"

Obama then invoked Joe when deliberating his health care plan, "I'm happy to talk to you, Joe, too, if you're out there. Here's your fine: zero. You won't pay a fine."

The debate seemed to turn on a question that asked the candidates to clarify negatives charges they've made against each other during the campaign.

It had been widely argued whether or not Senator McCain would bring up Obama's earlier association with former Underground radical William Ayers, a theme that has recently dominated McCain's advertisements, but Schieffer's question made discussion of Ayers inevitable.

For his part, McCain claimed that the campaign would have been more cordial had Obama agreed to an earlier request for additional town hall style debates. But later, when speaking about William Ayers, McCain seemed flustered and angry, accusing Obama's campaign of being negative and directly asking the Senator to address questions about Ayers.

Obama said that he and other distinguished public figures had once served on a board with William Ayers in Chicago, nothing more. He then strongly declared: "Mr Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House. So that's Mr Ayers." He also used the argument as an example of "politics as usual" and how they need to "rise above" the muck and answer questions most important to the American people. When McCain continued on with his attack, Obama just smiled widely and laughed, presenting a powerful contrast in appearance to the viewing public: McCain angrily harping on a perceived slight while Obama smiled and brushed off far more personal attacks.

The next question asked the candidates to assess the respective vice-presidential candidates as potential US Presidents. Obama confidently checked off US Senator Joe Biden's foreign policy credentials and legislative history while John McCain seemed strained as he vouched for Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's maverick background.

After that point, Obama seemed comfortable, and scored on specific issue questions like energy, healthcare and education, while bringing talks of abortion to a draw.

Senator McCain, who became progressively more negative in tone as the debate wore on, seemingly accused Senator Obama of holding an extremist point of view on the environment and on abortion, again drawing smiles and guffaws of astonishment from Obama.

Obama, however, used the same questions to argue his ideas in depth, and even parlayed specific policy discussion into his overall campaign theme. When answering about energy policy, he deftly manoeuvered to a discussion of the potential of 'green industry' that could drive America's economy in the 21st century and create millions of new jobs.

"It is absolutely critical that we develop a high fuel efficient car that's built not in Japan and not in South Korea, but built here in the United States of America. We invented the auto industry and the fact that we have fallen so far behind is something that we have to work on," he said, scoring points with both blue-collar auto workers and those with environmental concerns. 

But, when driving the same issues, McCain seemed to harp on Obama rather than discuss the issues directly. "Well, you know, I admire so much Senator Obama's eloquence. And you really have to pay attention to words. He said, we will look at offshore drilling. Did you get that? Look at."

 He also tried to paint Senator Obama as naïve on foreign policy and international trade agreements, but the Junior Senator from Illinois managed to give detailed and coherent rebuttals to each of Senator McCain's increasingly wild attacks.

 On healthcare, Obama was well trained and well versed, again combining policy nuance with his overarching populist theme. Transitioning from the details of his health plan, he said "And we are going to make sure that we manage chronic illnesses, like diabetes and heart disease, that cost a huge amount, but could be prevented. We've got to put more money into preventive care. This will cost some money on the front end, but over the long term this is the only way that not only are we going to make families healthy, but it's also how we're going to save the federal budget, because we can't afford these escalating costs."

 In response, McCain went negative. "Senator Obama wants to set up health care bureaucracies, take over the health care of America through... a single payer system. If you like that, you'll love Canada and England."

On abortion, where Obama has waffled in the past, he performed soundly, deflecting criticism from Senator McCain and making strides to strip the extremist, far-left label attached to his name on the issue. He again put a positive spin on the issue, claiming that the most important thing is to prevent unwanted pregnancies. "I think (preventing unwanted pregnancy is) where we can find some common ground, because nobody's pro-abortion. I think it's always a tragic situation," he said.

 In his final words, McCain chose to emphasise his bipartisan credentials, and also his military background. "I've spent my entire life in the service of this nation and putting my country first. As a long line of McCains that have served our country for a long time in war and in peace, it's been the great honor of my life, and I've been proud to serve. And I hope you'll give me an opportunity to serve again. I'd be honoured and humbled," he said.

 Obama then tapped into his populist and uplifting rhetoric, saying, "You know, over the last 20 months, you've invited me into your homes. You've shared your stories with me. And you've confirmed once again the fundamental decency and generosity of the American people. And that's why I'm sure that our brighter days are still ahead."

 In the balance, both candidates performed admirably given the circumstances. Obama started out slowly and cautiously, but gained confidence and resoundingly repudiated charges against his character, on important point going into the final few weeks campaigning. McCain performed admirably given his increasingly difficult electoral realities, and even managed to win the first part of the debate. Ultimately, it's likely neither candidate did much to increase or decrease the gap between the two candidates.

 America goes to polls on November 4.

Matthew Schneeberger