Aggressive Underdog vs. Cool Counterpuncher

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."

(Annenberg was actually an ambassador under President Richard M. Nixon.)

There were other such moments. McCain at one point pressed Obama to explain why he had voted against a measure in the Illinois legislature that he said would have denied medical treatment to a child born of a failed abortion. "It's not true," Obama countered, arguing that another law already assured such treatment and that the measure he opposed was also opposed by the Illinois Medical Society.

McCain hit Obama for breaking his pledge to take public funding for the general election and accused him of spending more on negative ads than any candidate in history. Obama pointed to polls showing that many more Americans believe that McCain has run a primarily negative campaign, and he claimed that 100 percent of McCain's ads have been negative.

Despite these kinds of exchanges, the debate once again highlighted sharp differences between the two on the issues that Americans care most about. McCain, more systematically than in the past, set out to portray Obama as a Democrat who believes deeply in bigger and more intrusive government, and he invoked a plumber named Joe Wurzelbacher, whom Obama had encountered on the campaign trail, as his foil to hammer Obama's policies.

At times, it seemed as if the entire campaign came down to which candidate could win over Wurzelbacher's vote. "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," McCain asserted.

When McCain charged that Obama's health plan would force Wurzelbacher to provide insurance for his workers or pay a fine, and demanded that his rival say how much the fine would be, Obama looked into the camera and said: "Joe, too, if you're out there. Here's your fine -- zero."

Democratic strategists watching from afar said they thought Obama had done what he needed to do by staying calm in the face of McCain's criticisms, focusing on an economic message aimed squarely at the middle class and once again using the 90 minutes to project reassurance.

Republican analysts watching the debate said McCain had done what he could to change the dynamic of the election. But they did not underestimate the size of the hill McCain must climb.

Even before Wednesday's debate, it was clear that Obama was making progress in overcoming the doubts about his candidacy. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, taken over the weekend, showed that by 54 percent to 40 percent, voters see Obama as the stronger leader. In June, as the general election was beginning, it was McCain by 47 percent to 44 percent.

In June, the public was evenly divided -- 48 percent to 48 percent -- on whether Obama had the experience to be president. Today it's 54 percent yes, 45 percent no. That's not an overwhelming vote of confidence, but in a divided country at the height of what has turned into an intensely partisan contest, it is a sign that Obama has made progress with doubters.

More remarkably, in the latest poll, McCain is seen as a riskier candidate than Obama. On that question, 50 percent of voters said the Republican nominee would be a risky choice and 50 percent said he wouldn't. For Obama, it was 55 percent saying he was a safe choice and 45 percent saying he would be a risky pick. In June, McCain was 16 points positive on that question, Obama two points positive.

Republican strategist Tom Rath said McCain showed in the debate how he thinks he must run now that he is behind. "He forced Obama regularly to defend his positions," he said. "I think it shows where the McCain team thinks they must go, which is back to the base, back to the Bush map of 2004. Over and over again McCain hit hardest on base issues and forced the discussion to that segment of the electorate which holds his best -- and maybe only -- chance of winning."

But Democratic strategist Tad Devine said that Obama still has the edge and that his huge financial advantage will now prove difficult to overcome. "This was the closest debate of the three," he said. "The sit-down was better for McCain than the two previous formats. But Obama still got the better of it, since he was not tripped up by McCain, and throughout did better at getting his core message across. . . . I think the voters will now settle in, with the advantage to Obama."

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