A Hard-Hitting Final Round

Less than three weeks before election day, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama debated from Hofstra University in New York. The event was moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS News.
By Michael D. Shear and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 16, 2008

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y., Oct. 15 -- Seeking to recapture the momentum in the presidential race, John McCain aggressively criticized Barack Obama's past relationships and challenged his character Wednesday night while Obama sought to link McCain to President Bush and direct the conversation to "solving the big problems here in America."

In the last of three debates, the candidates sat across a table from each other on a stage at Hofstra University and engaged in their most intense confrontation of the campaign, clashing on taxes, health care, school vouchers, abortion, energy policy and the increasingly bitter tone of the historic contest.

McCain mocked Obama's "eloquence," offered sarcastic retorts to the Democrat's answers and repeatedly invoked a plumber named Joe to accuse his rival of waging "class warfare" by wanting to raise taxes on the wealthy.

But Obama largely refused to return fire even as McCain taunted him, defending himself against the Republican's accusations but repeatedly trying to turn the conversation back to the economy and the country's bleak financial situation.

"I don't mind being attacked for the next three weeks," Obama said. "What the American people can't afford, though, is four more years of failed economic policies."

McCain was clearly ready for his rival's attempt to link him to the Bush administration. At Obama's first mention of Bush, he responded with what may have been the single most memorable line of the debates: "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush," he said. "If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."

McCain made good on a pledge to raise Obama's relationship with William Ayers, a 1960s radical involved in a series of bombings, including one at the Pentagon, who has become a leading education expert in Chicago. Until Wednesday, McCain had largely left it to his surrogates and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to attack Obama for what they say are his ties to a terrorist.

"I don't care about an old washed-up terrorist," McCain said, suggesting the concern instead is Obama's lack of truthfulness on the matter. "But as Senator [Hillary Rodham] Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship."

Obama said he was 8 years old when Ayers "engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago, he served and I served on a school-reform board."

McCain and Obama blamed each other for the negative tone of the campaign, with the Republican saying it was caused by his opponent's decision not to hold town hall meetings and because he "spent more money on negative ads than any political campaign in history."

McCain said Obama had backed out of his pledge to take public financing for his campaign and told him: "You didn't keep your word."

He also told Obama that he should have renounced Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who said that McCain and Palin at their rallies "were sowing the seeds of hatred and division," reminding him of the tone set by the late segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace.

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