In case anyone was wondering what tone John McCain would take in the final presidential debate, the answer came with his first response.
"Americans are hurting right now, and they're angry," he said. "They're hurting and they're angry," he repeated. "They're innocent victims of greed and excess on Wall Street as well as Washington DC. And they're angry and they have every reason to be angry."
Four mentions of anger in the first two minutes. And McCain was barely warmed up.
Anger was a crucial facet of the last debate of the 2008 campaign, held at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. The Republican nominee attacked his opponent relentlessly over the course of the evening, and Obama, seemingly determined to try to rise above and not take any risks that could imperil his lead in the race, spent much of his time responding to the charges-rather than mounting assaults of his own. Throw more punches than the other guy, and you're likely to land more blows. But McCain is trapped in a vicious cycle; trailing in the polls, his campaign is following conventional campaign wisdom by going negative. But the more he attacks, the surveys suggest, the higher his personal negatives tend to go. The instant post-debate polls, while not the most reliable soundings known to man, seemed to confirm the problem: The principle victim of McCain's sustained onslaught has been…John McCain.
McCain didn't just need a game-changing moment at the debate; the Arizona senator, known in Washington for his sharp temper, needed a character-changing moment.
To his credit, he hit on a smart, folksy vehicle for conveying his wrath. After Obama made a sales pitch for his own plan to help homeowners, moderator Bob Schieffer asked if McCain wanted to ask Obama a question.
"No," said the Republican nominee. "I would like to mention that a couple days ago, Senator Obama was out in Ohio and he had an encounter with a guy who's a plumber. His name is Joe Wurzelbacher."
Thus began an epic battle for one man's vote-not to mention the crowning of America's most famous plumber. Both candidates purported to know what was best for Joe, what he believed, and how his business would best operate.
As McCain drew Obama into a debate about tax hikes on people earning more than $250,000 a year, the Democratic nominee raised the name of Warren Buffett as someone who could afford to pay extra taxes.
"We're talking about Joe the Plumber," insisted McCain.
But McCain took the routine too far; what started out as a nice human touch in a complex economic debate soon ended up as a punchline. In the media room, where the nation's political reporters were watching the debate, the fifth reference to Joe the Plumber elicited giggles. The tenth prompted guffaws.
When he weaned himself away from Joe, some of McCain's most passionate lines involved the kind of hurt and anger that he feels about the kind of campaign his opponent is running.
Obama attacked McCain once again for voting for President Bush's budgets even as he campaigns against wasteful spending. "Senator Obama," McCain said turning to his rival, "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
That Reaganesque volley hung in the air for a few minutes, until Obama struck back. "The fact of the matter is if I occasionally have mistaken your policies for George Bush's policies," Obama said, "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."
At times, McCain seemed to lament his own strategy, acknowledging that two men who talked a lot about changing the tone in Washington seemed to have given in to the gravitational pull of negative campaigning down the home stretch. When Schieffer asked about the nasty tone of the campaigns, McCain said he regretted "some of the negative aspects of both campaigns" and spoke about his hurt feelings after the harsh criticism of John Lewis, the Democratic congressman and civil rights icon. But whatever remorse he might have felt was short-lived, as he pivoted and slammed Obama for running negative ads and rejecting public finance for his campaign after suggesting that he would. "You didn't tell the American people the truth," McCain scolded Obama.
Obama tried to tack back to the economy, saying voters weren't interested "in our hurt feelings." But McCain continued on the warpath, whacking Obama over his association with the 1960s radical William Ayers and his connection to the community group ACORN, which stands accused of submitting fabricated voter registration cards.
McCain's unease with the clubs he was wielding grew more manifest as the exchange wore on. By the end of it, he insisted both that Ayers and ACORN were critical to the election, and that his campaign was all about the economy.
"It's not the fact that Senator Obama chooses to associate with a guy who in 2001 said that he wished he had have bombed more, and he had a long association with him," McCain said. "It's the fact that all of the details need to be known about Senator Obama's relationship with them and with ACORN and the American people will make a judgment. And my campaign is about getting this economy back on track, about creating jobs, about a brighter future for America. And that's what my campaign is about and I'm not going to raise taxes the way Senator Obama wants to raise taxes in a tough economy. And that's really what this campaign is going to be about."
Now you can spend your time talking about Joe the Plumber. Or you can spend your time talking about Bill Ayers. You can even mix up a bit of both. But you can't spend your time talking about terrorists while insisting that you're only concerned about plumbers.
The instant results made for miserable reading for Republicans. According to CNN's polling, Obama beat McCain by almost two-to-one, winning the night 58 to 31 points. Over at CBS, where the network polls undecided voters, Obama won by an even bigger margin: 53 to 22 points.
Whatever happens in the next two weeks, the McCain campaign should be happy there are no more presidential debates.