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A feisty McCain, a cool Obama, and appeals to 'Joes' everywhere

In last presidential debate, McCain makes starkest break yet with Bush, invokes an Ohio plumber to discredit Obama's tax policies.

By / October 16, 2008

Republican presidential nominee John McCain makes a point to Democratic rival Barack Obama (r.) during their Oct. 15 debate in Hempstead, N.Y. CBS's Bob Schieffer moderated.

Charles Dharapak/Reuters

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Washington

John McCain brought an aggressive game face to the final presidential debate Wednesday night, putting his Democratic rival for the presidency, Barack Obama, on the defensive.

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But in his trademark style, Senator Obama kept his cool, smiling at times as Senator McCain unloaded on him. Obama’s answers were calm and lawyerly. The Illinois senator did not hurt himself, and thus remains the odds-on favorite to win in November. His average national lead in major polls has grown to more than seven percentage points, and he is ahead in several states that voted Republican four years ago.

Still, the race is by no means over, and McCain clearly came to Hofstra University, the debate site, with some points to make. Most memorably, he announced that he was fed up with being lashed to the side of the unpopular president, George W. Bush, and made the starkest break with him yet: “Senator Obama, I am not President Bush,” he asserted. “If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.”

Since launching his campaign, Obama has repeatedly stated that a President McCain would represent a third term of President Bush, pursuing what Obama likes to call the same “failed policies.” Polls show that many voters agree with that characterization. Realistically, if McCain had intended to divorce himself completely from Mr. Bush, he would have had to do it months or even years ago. Conservatives like Newt Gingrich tout French President Nicolas Sarkozy as the model for how to succeed an unpopular president from one’s own party – in his case, Jacques Chirac. The difference is that Mr. Sarkozy split from Mr. Chirac long before the French election, and succeeded in persuading voters that he would be more of a change agent than the opposition party.

If McCain goes on to lose on Nov. 4, he can rightfully blame Bush for defeating him twice – first in 2000, when McCain lost the nomination battle with the future president, and now in 2008, says Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster based in Denver.

“McCain simply cannot plow through this with this burden,” says Mr. Ciruli.

As for who “won” the Wednesday debate, polls showed Obama coming out on top. A CBS poll of uncommitted voters scored it 53 percent to 22 percent for Obama. CNN came in at 58 percent to 31 percent for Obama. But it may be too soon to gauge whether McCain’s attacks on Obama over his past association with former '60s radical William Ayers had any effect. Voters say they don’t like negativity in candidates, but going negative can work.

By raising the subject of Mr. Ayers, which he was under pressure to do, McCain answered the call of supporters and party strategists that he should get tough with Obama on this and other controversial figures in Obama’s past, like his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, famous for making incendiary comments about America. Despite pleas from some strategists, McCain opted against bringing up Reverend Wright, reportedly because he does not want to risk looking racist.

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