Page last updated at 04:19 GMT, Thursday, 16 October 2008 05:19 UK
McCain and Obama in tense final debate

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, New York

John McCain tells his rival that he "is not President Bush"

I was starting to think that it was time we got real and stopped referring to these stilted, stage-managed, stuttering candidate encounters as debates at all.

After all, the earlier meetings of Campaign 2008 were only faintly reminiscent of the world of genuine political argument - just as Olympic fencing with its padded suits, elaborate rules and obsession with safety is a pale shadow of the bloodthirsty and dangerous world of real sword fighting.

Well - I was wrong. On Long Island, Barack Obama and John McCain restored a sense of vigour to the debating process with a tense, edgy and occasionally highly-personal face-to-face showdown.

I couldn't help smiling when I heard that both camps were insisting on having air-conditioning outlets positioned above the respective heads of their candidates to make sure they didn't start looking hot and sticky - and therefore shifty - under the lights.

There had been nothing in Oxford, St Louis or Nashville to prompt either of them to break into a sweat.

In Long Island, they both had reason to be glad of that cooling flow of air.

Punchy questions

In part, that was down to the format of the debate which allowed the two men to argue directly with each other as they sat together around a horse-shoe shaped table.

Bob Schieffer moderates the debate, 15 Oct
Schieffer's questioning produced fierce exchanges between the candidates

But a little credit must go to the moderator, the veteran CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer, who asked punchy and direct questions and had enough poise to sit back and let the two candidates fight it out directly.

It produced some spiky exchanges - after one discussion of whether or not Americans should be paying higher taxes, Mr McCain tried to have the last word by saying: "Let's not raise anybody's taxes."

Mr Obama almost spoke over him to add: "I don't mind paying a little more."

Schieffer's best question was probably a direct challenge to the candidates to establish whether or not they were prepared to repeat to each other's faces the kind of slurs and distortions their campaign workers and surrogates happily peddle every day.

Mr Obama's best direct shot was probably when he chided his rival with the words: "John, 100% of your TV ads are negative."

The candidates accuse each other of negative campaigning and false adverts

Mr McCain was more aggressive - partly because that's the way he is, partly because he is now trailing badly in opinion polls in a whole string of battleground states and is therefore the candidate who needs to change the game.

He made a couple of dismissive references to Mr Obama's "eloquence" - for which you can read slippery stretching of the truth.

And he accused him directly of not keeping to a promise to restrict himself to using limited funds from the public purse for his campaign - an offer he made before he realised the huge advantage that his colossal fund-raising machine could offer.

Mr McCain looked directly at Mr Obama and said: "You didn't keep your word on campaign finance."

In the jargon of American politics, that was "taking it to Obama" - but while McCain supporters will feel he landed plenty of scoring punches it didn't feel to me that he'd done nearly enough to reverse the tide of bad economic news and bad opinion polls which are combining to choke the life out of his campaign.

Joe the plumber

The debate lasted 90 minutes and for the first 45 of them the atmosphere between the candidates crackled with genuine disagreement and, I thought, thinly-veiled dislike. But there was a whiff of the surreal about the debate, too, which helped to offset the tension a little.

Key words used most frequently by Barack Obama in the debate

Very early on, Mr McCain mentioned by name a plumber from Ohio who'd been seen in many television news clips discussing with Barack Obama how his tax plans would affect small businesses.

Mr McCain addressed the plumber - Joe Wurzelbacher - directly through the camera - a good, if rather over-used populist trick.

Mr Obama though, then did the same thing. And when the debate came onto the subject of healthcare, the Wurzelbachers were back front and centre in the political life of the nation again listening along with the rest of us to a discussion of how the rival plans would impact their lives.

Mr Wurzelbacher is now the most famous plumber in North America since Super Mario, although he must have got quite a shock when his name first popped up.

Competing visions

Not all of the debate lived up to the promise of the early passages.

The two candidates produced fairly predictable presentations on issues like health and education and at one point even found themselves discussing - albeit briefly - the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement. You'd have got long odds against that coming up at the start of the evening.

Key words used most frequently by John McCain in the debate

The question of who won is more difficult than usual because the two men are aiming to give such different performances. As a front-runner, Mr Obama seeks to look cool and measured - as underdog, Mr McCain has to look scrappier and more aggressive.

They'll probably both be pleased with their performances I think, although it's impossible to imagine that Mr McCain's was convincing enough to shift the terms of an election that is slipping out of his grasp.

So my winner (with a nod to Bob Schieffer for his sharp questioning) is the American voter who has dutifully watched the earlier debates in huge numbers and been rewarded only with dull and predictable exchanges.

At last the country was given a debate worthy of the name, which reminded us what this race is about and what drives the competing visions of the two men fighting for the most powerful job on earth.

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