HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Sen. John McCain defiantly declared his independence from President Bush in the final debate of the presidential campaign Wednesday as he fired off attack after attack on Democratic opponent Sen. Barack Obama's qualifications, his associations and his economic policies that he denounced as class warfare.
Mr. Obama countered that the Republican nominee would jeopardize Americans' health insurance, provide "giveaways" to banks and continue the course set by Mr. Bush.
"Senator Obama, I am not President Bush," snapped Mr. McCain, the clear underdog in polls, in one of many lively volleys. "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 in this country."
Mr. McCain repeatedly brought up Joe Wurzelbacher, an Ohio man who questioned Mr. Obama at a recent rally, to represent the middle class, arguing that the Democrat's tax plans would leave "Joe the Plumber" in the lurch.
And the senator from Arizona raised many of the issues that have been simmering beneath the scenes: abortion and judicial nominations; Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and Mr. Obama's pledge to meet with him; Mr. Obama's ties to William Ayers, a member of the Weather Underground group that bombed government buildings to protest the Vietnam War; and his ties to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), which is accused of voter registration fraud.
Mr. Obama brushed aside those attacks, denying that he is associated with Mr. Ayers or ACORN, and for the most part tried to keep the focus on his plans to revive the economy.
The issue has played well for Mr. Obama, and with the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunging more than 700 points Wednesday, figures to remain dominant for the rest of the campaign.
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"If I've occasionally mistaken your policies for George Bush's policies, it's because on the core economic issues that matter to the American people -- on tax policy, on energy policy, on spending priorities -- you have been a vigorous supporter of President Bush," Mr. Obama said.
He frequently said Mr. McCain was distorting both his own and Mr. Obama's records, and argued that it's the Republican who is distracting voters with negative ads.
"One hundred percent, John, of your ads, 100 percent of them have been negative," the Democrat said, referring to a study by the Wisconsin Advertising Project that found all of Mr. McCain's ads in a recent one-week period were negative.
Both Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain have in fact run positive ads during the campaign, but both are measurably more negative than their 2004 counterparts.
Mr. Obama's most pointed attack of the night came on health care, when he said Mr. McCain's plan would cause some businesses to drop their coverage of employees, putting even more on the rolls of the uninsured.
"Don't take my word for it. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which generally doesn't support a lot of Democrats, said that this plan could lead to the unraveling of the employer-based health care system," Mr. Obama said.
Heading into the debate Wednesday at Hofstra University, Mr. McCain's campaign had rejected the press' description of the affair as make-or-break, arguing that he still has nearly three weeks to make his case before voters go to the polls Nov. 4.
But with no other face-to-face showdowns scheduled, it was an opportunity he could ill afford to squander.
That led to the best sparring of the three debates, and Mr. McCain was relentless. In an effort to attract Hispanic voters, he noted that Mr. Obama has never traveled to Latin America, and said Mr. Obama's answer is always to resort to higher spending, at one point calling his opponent "Senator Government."
Mr. McCain and also listed times when Mr. Obama had broken his word, including his decision not to take public funding for the election and his failure to join in the 10 town halls that Mr. McCain had proposed.
Mr. McCain also insisted that Mr. Obama disavow last week's remarks by Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, who last week compared the Republican ticket to the segregationist Gov. George Wallace of Alabama.
Mr. Obama refused to disavow Mr. Lewis' remarks, saying only that the Georgian was not a campaign spokesman and Mr. Obama understood his frustration with the McCain campaign.
Mr. Obama parried and tried to bring the debate back to his strongest arguments. "I don't mind being attacked for the next three weeks. What the American people can't afford is four more years of failed economic policies," he said.
Mr. McCain said Mr. Obama has rarely fought his own party, pointing to his votes against Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. as evidence that he puts ideology over principle.
He also said Mr. Obama is an extremist because he did not vote for a ban on partial-birth abortions or for protecting infants born alive after botched abortions.
"It's not true," Mr. Obama said, arguing that he opposed the infants-born-alive bill and the partial-birth abortion ban because both would have undermined Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that established a right to an abortion. However, Mr. Obama voted against a version of the born-alive bill that stipulated that nothing in it affected the right to have an abortion.
Mr. McCain said his voting record showed that Mr. Obama had "the extreme pro-abortion position."
The Republican candidate's broadsides may not have worked. An instant poll of debate watchers conducted for CNN found that 58 percent thought Mr. Obama won the debate, compared with 31 percent for Mr. McCain. A CBS poll gave Mr. Obama a 53 percent to 22 percent edge.
In a statement after the debate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said her support goes to Mr. Obama who "is closing the deal in this election and America is closing the door on the last eight years of failed Republican policies."
But the star of last night's debate wasn't even on stage: Mr. Wurzelbacher, who gave Mr. McCain a line of attack when he told Mr. Obama on the campaign trail this week that the Democrat's tax plans would punish him for buying a plumbing business.
"It's not that I want to punish your success," Mr. Obama told Mr. Wurzelbacher, but he said he wants to tax the top end to "spread the wealth around" among those lower on the economic ladder.
Mr. McCain blasted that explanation. "We're going to take Joe's money and give it to Senator Obama and let him spread the wealth around. I want Joe the Plumber to spread that wealth around," Mr. McCain said.
He and Mr. Obama repeatedly addressed themselves through the television cameras to "Joe."
The candidates also clashed on spending and energy independence. At one point, when talking about energy, Mr. McCain said he wanted to decrease reliance on oil from the Middle East and Venezuela, but said Canadian oil is fine.
But his own support for a low-carbon fuel standard would actually discourage use of Canadian oil, which is considered "dirty" because much of it relies on oil shale and producing a barrel of oil from shale releases more greenhouse gases than convention oil from the Middle East.
Mr. Bush's popularity has slid in the past four years, and Mr. Obama has repeatedly linked Mr. Bush to Mr. McCain. In the first two debates, he pointed to administration policies and said the two Republicans share the same economic philosophy that has led to the Wall Street meltdown.
The earlier debates covered little on a key bit of unfinished business from Mr. Bush's two terms -- Social Security. And no mention about immigration was made in any of the debates.
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