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Live blog of the final John McCain-Barack Obama presidential debate

October 15, 2008 |  6:52 pm

(UPDATE: A complete debate transcript is available here.)

Final thoughts: In political lore, this final candidate faceoff of the longest presidential campaign in U.S. history is destined to be remembered as the "Joe the Plumber" debate.

Joe the Plumber, aka Joe Wurzelbacher, the Ohio plumbing contractor who recently asked a question of Barack Obama about tax policy, which prompted the Democrat to invoke the phrase "spread the wealth," which John McCain clearly decided could be used effectively to depict his rival as embracing a liberalism akin to socialism. By one quick count, McCain referred to "Joe the Plumber" 15 times.

But if Wurzelbacher achieved instant stardom, the real winner tonight was the American public. The third time truly proved the charm as McCain and Obama -- after two false starts -- finally engaged in a rhetorical battle that spelled out clear differences between them on a number of fronts.

These include the federal budget, healthcare, education and abortion (the latter two issues had been virtually ignored in the previous debates).

McCain delivered his best performance, at least during the debate's first 30 minutes. As befits his self-proclaimed "underdog" status in the race (confirmed by the polls), he immediately and aggressively challenged Obama on economic matters -- most obviously taxes.

And he delivered an effective retort when Obama played the "you're-a-Bush-third-term" card (see below). McCain partisans may rightly wonder what took McCain so long to come up with such an effective sound bite to this long-running Obama refrain, but better late than never.

Obama seemed off his stride -- and perhaps too passive -- as McCain got off to his good start. But once the William Ayers matter came up, was dealt with and set aside (again, see below), Obama rallied. And as the debate proceeded, he got stronger while McCain at times lost his focus.

McCain's campaign, though, can be expected to keep its focus on what he seemed to telegraph will be its main line of attack over the next few days -- and perhaps through election day. And that is hammering Obama over the "spread the wealth" phrase.

7:25 p.m. Unlike the previous debates, which focused largely on the economy and foreign policy, tonight Schieffer is asking questions about a wide range of issues, from abortion to education.

Although the candidates agree that America should have more charter schools, their education policies differ in some important ways.

McCain calls for an overhaul, including the implementation of a voucher system that would allow families to pull their tax dollars from public schools and use the money for tuition at charter or private schools. Obama does not favor vouchers.

Obama would pump billions into the school system and overhaul the No Child Left Behind program. He also talks about the need to improve college accessibility and affordability.

McCain, in responding, ignores the college issue and concentrates instead on the....

...disagreement that he and Obama have over federal funding of vouchers.

7:22 p.m. As the discussion turns to appointing Supreme Court justices, the two men ultimately spell out their clear difference on the controversial Roe vs. Wade decision that established a federal right to abortion.

After saying he would not impose a “litmus test” on those he would nominate to the court, McCain -- with prodding from Schieffer –- acknowledges that it would be unlikely he would name someone who disagreed with his opposition to Roe vs. Wade and his belief that the abortion issue should be determined by each state.

Obama also insists he would not impose litmus tests on court nominees, but acknowledges that it would be unlikely he would name someone who does not support Roe vs. Wade. He adds that he believes “a right to privacy” is inherent in the Constitution (the key to the ruling legalizing abortion nationwide) and that this is a matter “that shouldn’t be subject to state referendum.”

Again, the voter benefits: The difference between the two men gets clearly enunciated.

7:10 p.m. McCain misspeaks during the healthcare debate, referring to Obama as “Senator Government.”

But it’s a slip of the tongue that, in its own way, encapsulates the basic distinctions between McCain and Obama that the Republican came into this debate clearly hoping to drive home.

7:07 p.m. After a discussion of their respective healthcare plans had generated little heat, McCain seeks to draw a distinction with Obama by again invoking Joe the Plumber.

McCain insists that under Obama’s policy, small-business owners like Joe could face a fine if he failed to provide what an Obama administration deemed adequate healthcare coverage. He asks Obama to spell out what that fine might be.

Responds Obama, clearly relishing the moment: “Zero” (and to emphasize the point, he forms a zero with his fingers). He says that his plan would provide exemptions from some requirements for small businesses and that they would not face fines.

Democrat candidate Barack Obama and Republican Senator John McCain at their third and final presidential debate 10-15-087:00 p.m. The candidates seem more relaxed than at either of the previous debates. This one really does have the feel of a natural conversation, which is no small feat.

Both candidates have been candid in their reactions too. When Obama doesn't agree with something McCain says, he flashes a wide smile. When McCain hears something he doesn't agree with, he raises his eyebrows and grins.

6:54 p.m. As the discussion turns to their respective running mates, Obama takes a pass on criticizing Palin.

Asked directly by Schieffer whether he viewed her as qualified to assume the presidency, Obama says that’s for voters to determine. He gives her credit for being “a capable politician” who has fired up the Republican base. Noting that McCain had mentioned the focus she has put on special-needs children during the campaign, he praises her for that. But then he notes that helping parents cope with special-needs children could require spending by the federal government that McCain would freeze.

It’s a good point, but then McCain has an effective response. He asks why the Obama solution, on this and other fronts, would be to “spend more.” Instead, he says, greater efficiency should be demanded of federal agencies.

Bottom line: A clear difference is delineated between the candidates that voters can chew on.

McCain is less kind when he's asked about Joe Biden. He says Biden has made bad decisions when it comes to foreign policy, including opposing the Gulf War. And then he calls Biden's ideas about Iraq "cockamamie."

6:47 p.m. The much-anticipated discussion of Ayers yields little new on Obama’s links to him.

Having dutifully bought it up –- as well as Obama’s association with the suddenly controversial ACORN group (accused by Republicans of having engaged in massive voter registration fraud) -– McCain changes the subject without being prompted. What does he come back to? The economy, stupid.

“My campaign is about getting this economy on track. . . . And I’m not going to raise taxes” like, he charges, an Obama administration would.

6:39 p.m. Finally, about 30 minutes into the debate, as the two men neared what seemed like the end of a discussion of negative campaigning, McCain mentions Ayers’ name.

Obama responds, “Let’s get the record straight.” After identifying him as an education professor who lives in Chicago, Obama notes, as he has so often before, that he was 8 years old when Ayers engaged in “despicable acts” (i.e., helping plan violent protests and some domestic bombings in the early 1970s).

McCain responds by saying that Americans need to know more about the extent of their relationship (McCain has been saying that a lot on the stump this week, he often asks audiences, “Who is Barack Obama?”)

6:36 p.m. Schieffer, after listing the harsh charges and countercharges each campaign has lobbed against the other -– including Sarah Palin’s comment that Obama “pals around” with a terrorist (William Ayers) –- asks each candidate if he would repeat the attacks to each other, face to face.

McCain answers by decrying Obama’s refusal to conduct a series of joint town hall meetings during the summer. He also mentions the incendiary charge made by  Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, who said the tone of the Republican campaign, especially at some of Palin’s rallies, reminded him of the poisonous atmosphere that Gov. George Wallace of Alabama helped create during the fight for civil rights in the South in the early 1960s. He calls on Obama to repudiate that statement.

Obama at first avoids that request. Pressed on the matter by McCain, he first mentions the shouts of “terrorist” that his name has evoked at some Palin rallies, and then says he thinks some of what Lewis said was inappropriate.

6:32 p.m. We just got word of a clever gimmick by former Rep. Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate.

Barr was barred from tonight’s debate by the Commission on Presidential Debates, so he’s having his own debate against McCain and Obama on his website, showing the moderator’s questions, the answers from the Republican and the Democrat, and then giving his own answers as if he was at Hofstra too.

You can see it here.

Senators John McCain Republican and Barack Obama Democrat greet each other before their third andfinal presidential debate6:29 p.m.

McCain again shows that he came into this debate more focused and more disciplined than in the past ones.

After Obama seeks to tie McCain to the outgoing –- and unpopular -– GOP administration, McCain snaps, “I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.”

Obama is undeterred. He again argues that on economic policy, McCain marches to the same tune as Bush.

6:25 p.m. Schieffer takes a crack at what previous debate moderators Jim Lehrer and Tom Brokaw tried -– for the most part unsuccessfully –- at the last two debates: Get the candidates to specify federal programs that would have to be curtailed because of the huge financial commitment made to stem the economic crisis.

Obama, as at the last two encounters, declines to be pinned down. Instead, he stresses that as president, he would go through the budget “line by line” looking for savings.

McCain initially ignores the question to tout his mortgage program –- another sign that he went into the debate firmly fixed on driving home particular parts of his agenda.

He then repeats his call for a spending freeze on most parts of the federal budget. Noting that Obama previously has zinged that plan as a “hatchet” approach, he agrees, saying, “That’s a hatchet and then I would get out a scalpel.”

6:17 p.m. Move over "Joe Six-Pack" -- there's a new Joe in town.

McCain, in his first rejoinder to Obama, brings up “Joe the Plumber,” a fellow who has become a central figure in Republican talking points this week.

During a recent appearance in Ohio, Obama was working the crowd and the plumber (a "big, bald man with a goatee," according to the pool reporter) asked him about his fiscal proposals, which he complained would increase the taxes his business pays. The exchange was caught on tape, including Obama saying he wanted to “spread the wealth around.” You can watch it here.

As they engage in a discussion, McCain refers to that line and flatly accuses Obama of wanting to start “class warfare” in America.

Clearly, McCain wants to throw his rival off stride and make some key points with the debate audience. He has succeeded in focusing the forum on the tax issue before Schieffer insists that they must move on to another subject.

6:12 p.m. Schieffer begins with what we expected him to: the economy. He talks about the tanking stock market and asks each candidate to explain why his plan for fixing the chaotic economy is better.

McCain focuses on what he acknowledges is a short-term proposal: stabilizing the home mortgage market. He outlines the plan he unveiled at last week’s debate, which calls for the Treasury Department to essentially buy up a vast batch of mortgages and help the homeowners meet their obligations.

Obama starts out with the big picture, saying Americans understand the nation is facing its worst economic situation since the Great Depression. He details some of his proposals, including a new one he offered this week that would temporarily allow older Americans to tap their retirement accounts without tax penalties.

6:07 p.m. And they’re off!

The candidates have taken the stage, and Schieffer kicks things off with a warning: “By now we’ve heard all the talking points,” he says, before asking them to abandon them. Let's hope they listen.

6:02 p.m. Bob Schieffer takes the stage to prep the audience on being quiet, turning off the cellphones, etc. But first, he expressed one regret: that his friend, the late NBC journalist Tim Russert, was not among those at Hofstra tonight. “Tim loved this campaign,” Schieffer said.

5:56 p.m. Spotted: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mitt Romney, two politicians who would rather be onstage than in the crowd.

5:38 p.m. Good evening, and welcome to our live blog of the final debate between presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama. In less than 30 minutes, the pair will take the stage at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

As they do, we'll be wondering whether a campaign that so often has turned conventional wisdom on its head will produce yet another surprise.

Received political wisdom has it that the first debate is the one that counts the most -- the one most likely to produce a dramatic shift in political trends. But perhaps tonight's third McCain-Obama encounter will accomplish that, in part because of the format.

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The two men won't be standing behind lecterns and separated by several feet on the stage. That was the set-up for the first debate Sept. 26, and it's an arrangement that tends to discourage give-and-take. Fireworks also failed to fly in the second debate, on Oct. 7, as the attempt at creating a lively town hall environment failed miserably.

Tonight, Obama and McCain will to be seated together at a table, with CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer serving as moderator. Their proximity -- which will cry out for actual interaction -- has the potential to produce some memorable moments. So does the subject: domestic policy (which will mean, mainly, the struggling economy).

And, of course, Schieffer almost assuredly is going to broach the name that the McCain campaign has been dropping periodically over the last 10 days but which did not come up at last week's debate: William Ayers, the Vietnam-era bomber-turned-education-reformer who played a role in the start of Obama's political career.

You can watch live coverage alongside us by visiting the L.A. Times home page and clicking on the "live video" link (you can also tune in to CBS, NBC, ABC, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, the Fox News Channel, C-SPAN or BBC America).

Get ready -- the debate begins soon!

-- Don Frederick and Kate Linthicum

Photo credits, from top: Ron Edmonds / Associated Press
Justin Lane /European Pressphoto Agency

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