Aggressive Underdog vs. Cool Counterpuncher

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 Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y., Oct. 15 -- John McCain threw everything he could at Barack Obama here Wednesday night.

Down in the polls and with time running out, McCain took every opportunity to put Obama on the defensive, looking to turn a race that has been slipping away from him back in his direction in the final 20 days. It was what many of his supporters, including running mate Sarah Palin, had urged him to do, and McCain responded with vigor and seeming enthusiasm.

Obama was repeatedly forced Wednesday night to explain himself. But he did not lose his cool under his opponent's persistent criticism, parrying time and again with measured explanations designed to take the sting out of McCain's charges with voters who may still be making up their minds.

This debate may have been McCain's strongest performance of the three, but it was also an example of how Obama has used the encounters to try to show that he has not only the knowledge of the issues but also the temperament and the judgment that voters are looking for in a successor to President Bush.

In the end, given the overwhelming desire for change in the country, that may be enough to keep him in the driver's seat. McCain will have to continue to press his case relentlessly in the final days to change the shape of the campaign.

In the past two weeks, the race has taken an ugly turn -- whether in television commercials, the remarks of the candidates, or, in particular, the comments of their surrogates or supporters. On Wednesday night, much of that came into play in the hall at Hofstra University, where CBS's Bob Schieffer guided the two candidates into a direct confrontation over what has been said.

That produced a debate that not only dealt with the deep philosophical differences between Obama and McCain on the economy, government, health care and energy but also brought to the table Obama's association with 1960s radical William Ayers and a little-known group called ACORN that has been accused of voter fraud in several states.

McCain accused Obama of failing to repudiate some of the worst attacks leveled by Democratic allies, pointing to comments over the weekend by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who compared McCain to segregationist George Wallace and warned that McCain and Palin were empowering the kind of sentiment that led to violence during the civil rights movement.

"Senator Obama," he said, "you didn't repudiate those remarks. Every time there's been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them."

Obama said the comparison with Wallace was inappropriate, but he also fired back at McCain, saying that at GOP rallies, "when my name came up, things like 'terrorist' and 'kill him,' . . . your running mate didn't mention, didn't stop, didn't say, 'Hold on a second -- that's kind of out of line.' "

Obama challenged the suggestion that he had spent time "palling around with terrorists," opening up a discussion of Ayers, who was a member of the Weather Underground, a radical group that carried out domestic bombings during the Vietnam War era.

"He engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group," Obama said. "I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago he served and I served on a school reform board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan's former ambassadors and close friends, Mr. [Walter] Annenberg. . . . Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House."

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