Joe Again? Say It Ain't So.

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank and's Akira Hakuta sketch the final presidential debate of 2008.Video by Akira Hakuta/
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, October 16, 2008

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y., Oct. 15

Before Wednesday night's final presidential debate, the big question had been whether John McCain would hit Barack Obama with Bill Ayers. Instead, he hit him with Joe the Plumber.

Ayers, the "washed-up terrorist," as McCain called him, had but a bit role; the Republican nominee instead focused on a plumber from Toledo who fears that Obama will make him pay higher taxes.

"Senator Obama was out in Ohio and he had an encounter with a guy who's a plumber. His name is Joe Wurzelbacher," the Republican nominee said at the start of the debate. Turning to Obama, McCain leveled a severe accusation: "What you want to do to Joe the Plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business."

"Is that what you want to do?" the moderator, CBS's Bob Schieffer, asked Obama.

"That's what Joe believes," McCain maintained.

Obama, the front-runner, suddenly found himself on the defensive on the Joe issue. He sought to clarify "the conversation I had with Joe the Plumber."

McCain would not yield. "Small-business people like Joe the Plumber are going to create jobs unless you take that money from him and spread the wealth around," he said.

Obama, still embattled on the Joe front, acknowledged that "my friend and supporter, Warren Buffett, for example, could afford to pay a little more in taxes."

"We're talking about Joe the Plumber!" McCain interjected.

An hour later, they were still turning Joe into a real-life version of "Swing Vote," the Kevin Costner film in which one man single-handedly decides the presidency.

The Joe maneuver was emblematic of McCain's tactics in the final debate: He answered critics' demands that he go after Obama, but he did it with apparent ambivalence.

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