HEMPSTEAD, N.Y -- John McCain's job at the final presidential debate was to throw Barack Obama off stride because he has a lot of catching up to do in the 19 days left in the campaign, with Obama surging ahead.
But Obama, Mr. Cool -- sometimes too cool, especially when he ignored at first McCain's request to repudiate charges that he and Sarah Palin were promoting racism and violence -- did nothing that handed McCain the game-changing debate he needed
McCain aggressively attacked Obama, invoking Bill Ayers, ACORN, Obama's inflated claims of standing up to his party leadership and "Joe the Plumber," the Ohio man who told Obama his tax plans worried him.
"The whole premise behind Sen. Obama's plans are class warfare, let's spread the wealth around," McCain said.
He tore into Obama for Velcro-ing him to the unpopular president, declaring, "I am not President Bush," while he ridiculed Obama for never traveling south of the border, suggesting his understanding of foreign affairs was lacking.
"Actually I understand it pretty well," Obama shot back.
This third debate, moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS, was a 90-minute short course on the fight between McCain and Obama, dramatizing their policy differences on taxes, abortion and health care and their plans for dealing with the terrible economic crisis.
But Schieffer, turning to presidential leadership, prodded McCain and Obama to say to each other's face all the nasty things their ads and staffers have been saying.
McCain used the opening to bring up Obama's associations with Bill Ayers -- the former terrorist now Chicago university professor specializing in urban education.
"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," McCain said. He brought up ACORN, the activist group Obama has been friendly with -- now in big trouble over its voter registration drive.
"Mr. Ayers has become the centerpiece of Senator McCain's campaign over the last two or three weeks," Obama said, not adding much to what he's said.
McCain was wrong when he said Obama launched his political career at Ayers' home. I talked to Hyde Parkers around when Obama first ran for the state senate in 1995 and Ayers was but one of many who showed early support for Obama.
In all, a lot said, a lot not changed.