Page last updated at 08:33 GMT, Thursday, 16 October 2008 09:33 UK

McCain throws kitchen sink at Obama

Andrew Romano
By Andrew Romano

That loud clanging you heard coming from Hofstra University?

It was the sound of a kitchen sink soaring from stage right, where Republican nominee Sen John McCain was seated, and landing stage left.

Depending on where you sit and who you support, the unwieldy washbasin either knocked Sen Barack Obama off his perch or shattered in pieces on the floor. The only question - the question that could decide this year's election - is how the dwindling bloc of undecided voters interpreted the commotion.

The presidential contest is down to a clash of two "effects": the Bradley Effect and the Facebook Effect
Howard Fineman,

Trailing a candidate who could afford to maintain the status quo - that's what a 7.3-point lead in the national polls and a 190-vote advantage in estimates of the Electoral College will do for you - Mr McCain arrived at Hofstra with a far more difficult mission - catching up.

This was, after all, the last time 70 million Americans would tune in before Election Day.

Joe's taxes

The chatterati agreed that Mr McCain needed - cliche alert! - a "game-changer".

But pre-debate speculation centred on "which McCain" would attempt to change the game: the gentleman who's spent the past few days telling audiences that he relishes his "underdog" status, pledges to "fight for [his country]" and refuses to impugn Mr Obama personally, or the scrapper who's still airing negative ads 100% of the time and promising to "whip [Barack Obama's] you-know-what".

The answer was immediately apparent to anyone with a pulse. Over the course of 90 minutes - and I apologise if my count is not complete; my fingers can only type so fast - Mr McCain accused Mr Obama of being:

• a) a craven wealth-spreader (at least eight times)

• b) an abject tax-raiser, especially on folks unfortunate enough to make $42,000 a year

• c) a lily-livered coward who's never once stood up to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi

• d) a town-hall avoider

• e) a public-financing flip-flopper

• f) the most avid negative advertiser in American history

• g) a befriender of "washed-up terrorist(s)"

• h) an enabler of "one of the greatest frauds in voter history" (which just so happens to be "destroying the fabric of American democracy")

• i) an "eloquent" dissembler

• j) a support of infanticide and finally,

• k) a guy who wants to do all kinds of unspeakable things to someone named Joe the plumber, up to and including raising his taxes, redistributing his money and fining him for choosing the wrong kind of health care. (No word yet on whether Mr Obama plans to spit in Joe's beer when he's looking in the other direction).

After all that, Mr McCain's claim that his "campaign is about getting this economy back on track, about creating jobs, about a brighter future for America" seemed like a punchline.

Hitting home

Despite what Mr Obama's defenders will say, though, some of Mr McCain's slings and arrows were on target.

The Illinois senator did weasel out of public financing. He did quash the town hall proposal after saying he would "meet [John McCain] anytime, anywhere". His record of defying his party's orthodoxy is nowhere near as long as Mr McCain's.

And he does plan to raise taxes on small business owners who make more than $250,000 a year - which may or may not include Joe the plumber.

McCain and Obama on taxes, tax-cuts and Joe the plumber

Other attacks, however, were clearly inaccurate. Mr Obama did not launch his career in William Ayers's living room, and objective observers say the two men "do not appear to have been close".

Acorn may be irritating, but it's hardly "destroying the fabric of American democracy".

And even Fox News agrees that Mr Obama never actually voted to raise taxes on families making $42,000. What's more, Mr Obama did a good job deflecting the barbs tipped with a bit of "truthiness", including quote-unquote infanticide ("already a law on the books"), partial-birth abortion ("completely supportive of ban on late-term abortions... as long as there's an exception for the mother's life") and the size of his health care "fine" ("zero; I exempt small business from the requirement").

Mr Obama may have been on the receiving end of the kitchen sink tonight. But he never seemed shaken.

Instead, he simply used Mr McCain's flurry of attacks as an opportunity to decry "politics as usual" and repeatedly portray himself as the only candidate focused on the "the major problems facing America".

That said, Mr McCain did what he came to do: attempt to "disqualify" Mr Obama however he could.

The Democrat currently averages 50% of the vote, with 12 of the past 17 national polls showing him at or above that mark. Which means that Mr McCain could capture every remaining undecided voter and still lose the election (were it held today).

Huffing and puffing

To come out on top, the Republican needed - needs - to convince people who are already supporting Mr Obama to jump ship. Hence the kitchen-sink approach - at least one "disqualification" for everyone.

The question is whether it'll work. In the first debate, Mr McCain kept Mr Obama on the defensive and, in my opinion, drove his message more effectively.

The fact is, the people Mr McCain still needs to win over - that is, undecideds and soft Obama supporters - have yet to indicate that they can be swayed by attacks

At the time, I said he won. But respondents in the CNN poll picked Mr Obama 51% to 38%; CBS's pollees - undecideds - gave him a 39-25 edge.

Mr McCain may have been the better debater on points, but the voters recoiled from what they'd called his "condescending" persona - his refusal to say Mr Obama's name, his reluctance to look his rival in the eye.

The past few weeks - during which Mr McCain and Sarah Palin have questioned Mr Obama's character - have unfolded in much the same way: with Mr McCain's net favourable rating plummeting (to 7.8%) and Mr Obama's ticking steadily upward (to 21.5%).

For the record, both candidates enjoyed identical 17-point net-positive ratings before the match-up in Mississippi.

So it's unclear that Mr McCain's performance on Wednesday - which, if anything, was even edgier than his debut, with more huffing, puffing and eye-rolling - will rescue his bid.

My hunch is that his criticisms were so diffuse and so scattered that the viewers won't focus on the substance of any one attack - they'll just focus on the fact that Mr McCain spent much of his time attacking.

Terrific moments

The early signs, at least, aren't favourable for the Republican. The CBS poll shows that 55% of uncommitted viewers preferred Mr Obama; only 22% preferred Mr McCain. CNN has a 58-31 split.

More than half of Fox's undecided focus group broke for the Democrat. Those are easily the most decisive results of the season.

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

Lest I sound too negative, the debate wasn't all attacks, all the time. Mr McCain had some terrific moments. He rightfully scolded Mr Obama for constantly linking him to President Bush.

"Senator Obama, I am not President Bush," he said. "If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."

He was forceful, passionate and clear when speaking about abortion and education. And I kind of liked the Joe the plumber tactic - even if saying "Joe the plumber" 21 times was a bit over the top, and not all of Mr McCain's Joeisms were coherent.

(Case in point: "You were going to put him in a higher tax bracket which was going to increase his taxes, which was going to cause him not to be able to employ people, which Joe was trying to realise the American dream.")

Overall, it was the most compelling showdown to date.

That said, the headline tonight is "McCain Attacks" - and deservedly, even purposefully, so.

Die-hard Republicans will applaud their nominee for "taking off the gloves" and swinging again and again at a rival they consider unfit to serve. But die-hard Republicans are already voting Republican.

The fact is, the people Mr McCain still needs to win over - that is, undecideds and soft Obama supporters - have yet to indicate that they can be swayed by attacks (let alone a dozen attacks at once).

With only 20 days to go until the election, we'll know soon enough whether they've simply been holding out - or whether their resistance is real.

This article was first published on on Wednesday 15 October 2008.

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