If the final presidential debate were a boxing match, and in many ways these events are, one would have to score it as relatively even and that is not what Republican John McCain needed, not by a long shot. To win this most extended of presidential election campaigns, the Arizona senator had to have a clear decision if not a knock out to overcome the 8 to 10 points he is trailing Barack Obama in almost every poll.
There were moments when McCain landed some telling blows, but then failed to capitalize on Obama’s vulnerability over his almost complete lack of substantive experience to deal with the current financial crisis among other things. One of these times came when McCain showed some of the toughness that got him through a long incarceration in Hanoi by bristling openly at Obama’s suggestion that he is in reality just a duplicate of the unpopular President Bush.
He is not George Bush, McCain noted sharply, looking straight at his opponent. If Obama had wanted to run against the current president he should have done so in 2004, he said sharply.
To effectively separate himself from the policies of the current Republican administration, which most analysts see as utterly necessary if he is to have a chance to win, has been a challenge for McCain all along and while it is not the first time he has tried to do so, this angry response to Obama was his best effort yet. Although the Illinois senator tried to slip the blow and counter, McCain clearly won the point.
Probably McCain’s next best punch of the evening came when he spontaneously interrupted the Democrat’s outline of his economic plan that includes a tax increase for those making more than $250,000 annually by demanding to know why in these perilous economic times "you would want to raise anyone’s taxes?" The quarter million dollar level apparently is where Obama’s advisors arbitrarily peg the cut off between middle and upper class incomes. It is nice to know that one making up to that considerable amount is still middle class. Obama said it covers 95 percent of Americans.
But those who judge these things, including conservative analysts, were puzzled by McCain’s failure to press his experience advantage. His low moment came when he followed up on a question about negative campaigning to continue to raise questions about Obama’s association with former domestic terrorist, William Ayers. It had an air of desperation.
It is difficult to see how in the very few remaining days of this arduous and acrimonious presidential campaign McCain can overcome the considerable Obama advantage in available funds and the stigma of an economic crisis that is being laid at the doorstep of the Republican White House. Certainly, the debate finale wasn’t enough to change the minds of the 12 percent to 13 percent of those now counted in Obama’s corner that pollster say McCain would need to win. Historically, the candidate of the party in the presidency at the time of even a mild economic downturn is wasting his time running. It would be a miracle, given this hurricane-sized storm, if voters didn’t hold the Republicans accountable.
The one unknown that remains is whether race will have a discernable impact at the polls. Ironically, the race card was played on behalf of Obama when Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a former civil rights leader, recently compared McCain to George Wallace, the late segregationist governor of Alabama. It was an utterly outrageous, unfounded and racist accusation. Obama never quite acceded to McCain’s demands for an apology during the debate.
It was the last time the two candidates will appear together and the final appeal of each now will be followed by a blitz of television advertising and more stumping in the battleground states and probably more name calling. For most Americans it can’t end soon enough.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)