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.
"That, to me, was so hurtful," McCain said. "And Senator Obama, you didn't repudiate those remarks."
Obama said polls show that the country believes that it is McCain who is running the negative campaign. "And 100 percent, John, of your ads -- 100 percent of them have been negative," Obama said.
"It's not true," McCain responded, even though a recent study showed that all of the Republican's recent ads have been negative.
"It absolutely is true," Obama shot back. "And now I think the American people are less interested in our hurt feelings during the course of the campaign than addressing the issues that matter to them so deeply."
McCain made Joe Wurzelbacher, an Ohio man looking to buy a plumbing business, the third character in the debate, mentioning him 20 times and using him to criticize Obama's tax proposals and to make the charge that the Democrat is waging "class warfare."
Wurzelbacher met Obama in Toledo this week and said the Democrat's proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy would keep him from buying the business. McCain said Obama's proposals would mean that some may "not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business."
Moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked Obama, "Is that what you want to do?"
McCain jumped in: "That's what Joe believes."
Obama responded: "He has been watching ads of Senator McCain's."
McCain cited the Ohio man again in discussing his health-care proposals. "Now, my old buddy Joe, Joe the Plumber, is out there," he said. "If you don't . . . adopt the health-care plan that Senator Obama mandates, he's going to fine you. . . . I don't think that Joe right now wants to pay a fine when he is seeing such difficult times in America's economy."
Obama weighed in: "And I'm happy to talk to you, Joe, too, if you're out there. Here's your fine -- zero."
It was in the context of Joe's taxes that McCain accused Obama of class warfare, noting several times that the Democrat was quoted as having told Joe that he would "spread the wealth around."
"In other words, we're going to take Joe's money, give it to Senator Obama and let him spread the wealth around," McCain said. "The whole premise of Senator Obama's plans are class warfare."
At times, McCain's voice was edged with sarcasm, even on sensitive topics such as abortion and pay equity for women, both of which were raised during a discussion about the Supreme Court.
The abortion issue has surfaced infrequently during the campaign, despite the candidates' stark differences on the issue. But Wednesday night, Obama and McCain differed sharply over abortion and the use of a woman's health as a reason to override restrictions on the procedure.
McCain cited Obama's opposition in the Illinois Senate to a ban on what opponents call "partial birth" abortion, a measure that Obama said he would have supported, had a maternal health provision been included.
The senator from Arizona cited "the eloquence of Senator Obama," and then said with a scowl: "The health for the mother -- you know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, 'health.' "
When asked about the qualifications of their running mates, each gave full-throated support.
"Joe Biden, I think, is one of the finest public servants that has served in this country," Obama said, adding that he "has some of the best foreign policy credentials of anybody," but also that "his entire life, he has never forgotten where he came from."
McCain called Palin "a reformer, through and through," and said she would be a "breath of fresh air coming into our nation's capital."
McCain said Biden is qualified "in many respects," but added that "he's been wrong on many foreign policy and national security issues, which is supposed to be his strength," and that he had "this cockamamie idea about dividing Iraq into three countries."
Schieffer asked Obama whether he thought Palin is qualified. "You know, I think it's -- that's going to be up to the American people. I think that, obviously, she's a capable politician who has, I think, excited the -- a base in the Republican Party."
On the question of foreign oil, McCain said he thinks the country "can easily, within seven, eight, 10 years, if we put our minds to it, we can eliminate our dependence on the places in the world that harm our national security if we don't achieve our independence."
Obama seemed to agree, saying, "I think that in 10 years, we can reduce our dependence so that we no longer have to import oil from the Middle East or Venezuela. I think that's about a realistic time frame."
Obama added: "This is the most important issue that our future economy is going to face."
When McCain tried to make it an issue of free trade, Obama said: "I believe in free trade. But I also believe that for far too long, certainly during the course of the Bush administration with the support of Senator McCain, the attitude has been that any trade agreement is a good trade agreement."
McCain criticized Obama for opposing a trade agreement with Colombia, and said "free trade with Colombia is something that's a no-brainer. But maybe you ought to travel down there and visit them and maybe you could understand it a lot better."
"Actually, I understand it pretty well," Obama shot back.
McCain also brought up Obama's relationship with the community organizing group ACORN, which is being investigated in several states in connection with voter registration irregularities.
McCain said the group is "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."
Obama responded that ACORN's voter registration problems "had nothing to do with us. We were not involved. I think the fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me."
Barnes reported from Washington. Staff writer Shailagh Murray in Hempstead contributed to this report.