Joe Again? Say It Ain't So.

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.

The first two debates had been relatively bland affairs, and McCain's failure to raise serious doubts about Obama left him badly trailing his opponent just three weeks before the election. The pre-debate conversation all but assumed the election was over and Obama was the president-elect. The question wasn't so much whether McCain could turn things around, but whether he would choose to go down fighting (likely sacrificing his dignity along the way) or choose to lose quietly but honorably.

Last night, McCain finally went on the attack against Obama, but he had to be coaxed into it by Schieffer. "Senator McCain, your commercials have included words like 'disrespectful,' 'dangerous,' 'dishonorable,' 'he lied.' Your running mate said he 'palled around with terrorists,' " the moderator said. "Are each of you tonight willing to sit at this table and say to each other's face what your campaigns and the people in your campaigns have said about each other?"

With a bit more prodding, McCain made his much-anticipated Ayers attack. "Mr. Ayers -- I don't care about an old washed-up terrorist, but as Senator Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship," he ventured. "We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama's relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."

After a detailed defense by Obama, McCain pressed one more time. "You and Mr. Ayers, together, you sent $230,000 to ACORN," he charged. "And you launched your political campaign in Mr. Ayers's living room. . . . 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. It's the fact that all the -- 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," he added.

Obama chuckled. Schieffer moved on to another question -- and Ayers and ACORN, after a five-minute cameo, were gone.

In those five minutes, the Republican nominee became the man America had seen in his ads, whose slashing personal attacks on his opponent's character have, by most measures, done him more harm than good. Perhaps mindful of that, or perhaps set back by Obama's mild responses to his attacks, McCain, though delivering sharper jabs than he had in the earlier debates, was unwilling, or unable, to mount a sustained effort to undermine Obama's personal standing.

McCain quickly abandoned the personal line of attack for the more substantive but less cutting. "Senator Obama, your argument for standing up to the leaders of your party isn't very convincing," he said. And "Senator Obama . . . has never traveled south of our border." And Joe Biden "had this cockamamie idea about dividing Iraq into three countries."

Then, of course, there was Joe the Plumber. Some time after his first mention of Joe, McCain returned to the subject. "I've, I've talked to people like Joe the Plumber and tell him that I'm not going to spread his wealth around; I'm going to let him keep his wealth," he said. An hour after the first Joe mention, McCain reminded everybody that "my old buddy, Joe, Joe the Plumber, is out there" and would pay a fine under Obama's health plan. "I don't think that Joe right now wants to pay a fine," he said.

Obama appealed to Joe. "I'm happy to talk to you, Joe, too, if you're out there," he said. "Here's your fine -- zero. . . . In fact, Joe, if you want to do the right thing with your employees and you want to provide them health insurance, we'll give you a 50 percent credit."

"Joe, you're rich, congratulations," McCain said with sarcasm. McCain reminded the plumber that "Senator Obama wants government to do the job. I want, Joe, you to do the job."

Replied Obama: "All I want to do, if you've already got health care, is lower your costs. That includes you, Joe."

"Let's stop there," Schieffer recommended.

Is that okay with you, Joe?

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