Image: Candidates and wives
Jae C. Hong  /  AP
Sen. John McCain and his wife, Cindy, left, and Sen. Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, wave to supporters Wednesday night in Hempstead, N.Y.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 10/16/2008 11:22:55 AM ET 2008-10-16T15:22:55

Republican Sen. John McCain launched a heavy assault on Democratic Sen. Barack Obama’s judgment and experience Wednesday night, making a last-ditch effort in the final presidential debate to change the course of a campaign moving decidedly in his opponent’s favor.

McCain bore in on details of Obama’s economic and budget proposals, saying they would mean steep tax increases for many Americans. “Why would you want to raise anybody’s taxes right now?” McCain asked. “We need to encourage businesses.”

Obama insisted that his plan would raise taxes on only the top 5 percent of earners and accused McCain of proposing to give tax breaks to oil and gas companies.

“We both want to cut taxes,” Obama said. “The difference is who we want to cut taxes for.”

In the course of the exchange, the candidates made a national star of Joe Wurzelbacher, a plumber who confronted Obama about his tax policies Monday at a rally in Ohio. Both men addressed their remarks directly to “Joe the Plumber,” who would not say Wednesday night whom he would vote for.

“It’s pretty surreal, man, my name being mentioned in a presidential campaign,” Wurzelbacher told The Associated Press.

McCain hits Obama on numerous issues
McCain attacked Obama on a variety of other issues during the debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., saying his opponent had reneged on a promise to accept federal matching funds for his campaign, opposed all offshore oil drilling and had distorted McCain's position on stem-cell research.

Obama has said offshore drilling is worth studying. McCain, meanwhile, said he favored most research on stem-cell projects, opposing only work on cells derived from aborted human embryos.

The attacks were a calculated gamble on the part of the McCain campaign, which has seen its polling numbers fall as its anti-Obama rhetoric has diverged from substantive policy discussions.

The sharpest attacks Wednesday night came on Obama’s ties to a national organizing group that he said was perpetrating the “biggest fraud in American history” in its voter registration drives in predominantly urban and minority communities.

McCain had said beforehand that he would also attack Obama’s ties to William Ayers, a founder of the radical 1960s activist group Weather Underground. But Wednesday night, he shifted his focus to ACORN, which has been accused by conservative commentators of voter fraud because registrars have found phony registration applications submitted by canvassers for the group.

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“Mr. Ayers — I don’t care about an old washed-up terrorist,” McCain said, adding simply that “we need to know the extent of Senator Obama’s relationship” with Ayers.

He hit much harder on Obama’s ties to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, a liberal activist group that Obama represented in a voting rights lawsuit in the 1990s.

Obama maintained that ACORN’s efforts were independent of his campaign and accused McCain of trying to change the subject from Ayers because his campaign’s attacks were not working.

“Mr. Ayers has become the centerpiece of Senator McCain’s campaign in recent weeks,” Obama complained, saying he had “roundly condemned” Ayers’ advocacy of violent reform three decades ago, before Ayers became a college professor and advocate for education programs.

“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,” Obama said. “The fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it does about me.”

McCain breaks sharply with Bush
McCain also sought to shift the direction of the debate by breaking sharply with President Bush, saying Obama was running against the wrong man by criticizing the economic performance of the last eight years.

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

Obama said that, nonetheless, McCain had voted for four of Bush’s last five budgets and said a McCain presidency would be a continuation of the Bush administration.

“If I’ve occasionally mistaken your policies for George Bush’s policies, it’s because on the core economic issues that matter to the American people — on tax policy, on energy policy, on spending priorities — you have been a vigorous supporter of President Bush,” he said.

The exchange came as both men outlined their new proposals to rescue the faltering U.S. economy.

“Americans are hurting right now, and they’re angry,” said McCain, calling struggling homeowners “innocent victims of greed and excess on Wall Street and Washington, D.C.”

Answering criticism of the $300 billion plan he unveiled in the last debate to buy Americans’ bad mortgages, McCain said his proposal would benefit, not hurt, homeowners who had continued to pay their mortgages on time.

“It doesn’t help that person’s home if their neighbor’s house is abandoned,” he said.

The McCain campaign stuck to its themes afterward, calling McCain’s aggressive tactics “strong, clear straight talk about setting a new direction for our country.”

“While Barack Obama is measuring the drapes and campaigning against a man not even on the ballot, John McCain demonstrated that he has the experience, judgment, independence and courage to fight for every American,” McCain’s communications director, Jill Hazelbaker, said in a statement.

The Obama campaign countered by condemning what it called McCain’s “angry and negative attacks.”

“We came into the debate with two-thirds of the American people thinking that John McCain is running a negative campaign, and Senator McCain spent 90 minutes trying to convince the other third,” Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, said in a statement.

With less than three weeks until the Nov. 4 election, the 90-minute debate focusing on the economic crisis comes as polls show Obama with a clear lead nationally and in several key battleground states.

The latest Gallup Poll daily tracking report, which questioned more than 2,300 likely voters nationwide Sunday through Tuesday, showed Obama with a 52 percent-to-44 percent lead. Numerous other polls released this week mirrored those results, all showing Obama with a lead of 3 to 10 percentage points.

McCain was keenly aware of the stakes he faced after two debates in which supporters suggested that he was insufficiently forceful against Obama. Over the weekend, he promised to “whip” Obama’s “you know what.”

McCain first went on the attack, ironically, by accusing Obama of attacking him too strongly. He complained that Obama had not repudiated comments by supporters complaining about the Republican attacks on Obama. McCain intimated that the comments, by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and other civil rights leaders, were racially motivated.

Obama responded by saying “100 percent” of McCain’s ads had been negative.

“Senator McCain’s own campaign said publicly last week that if we keep talking abut the economic crisis, we [the McCain campaign] lose, so we need to change the subject,” Obama said.

For months, McCain and his campaign have tried to convince voters that Obama is an inveterate tax raiser whose spending priorities on health care and other issues would mean higher taxes on people of all incomes. Obama has said he would raise taxes only on people making more than $250,000 per year.

Heavy-duty response team
But McCain attacked Obama on a variety of issues, saying his opponent had reneged on a promise to accept federal matching funds for his campaign and opposed all offshore oil drilling (Obama has said it offshore drilling was worth studying) and saying Obama had distorted McCain's position on stem-cell research.

McCain complained that Obama had accused him of opposing stem cell research, which he said was not true. He said he favored most research on stem cell projects, opposing only work on cells derived from aborted human embryos.

Asked about their running mates, both candidates said Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden was qualified to become president, but McCain qualified his judgment by adding the words “in many respects.”

McCain passed up a chance to say his own running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was qualified to sit in the Oval Office, although he praised her performance as governor. Obama sidestepped when asked, saying it was up to the voters to decide.

Anticipating a full-bore assault from McCain, the Obama campaign planned to deploy a heavy-duty response team. For the first time, Obama’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, was expected to be at the debate site to answer McCain’s charges on Obama’s behalf, aides told NBC News.

Obama’s campaign also has taken some shots at McCain. In an internal memo sent to reporters by mistake Wednesday, senior campaign officials said their main message after the debate would be that “John McCain has been erratic and unsteady since this crisis began — staggering from position to position and trying to change the subject away from the economy by launching false character attacks."

Carrie Dann, Steve Handelsman, Andrea Mitchell and Domenico Montanaro of NBC News contributed to this report.

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