The Final Presidential Debate: Not a Game Changer

Pick your metaphor: it's the bottom of the ninth with two outs, it's fourth and long in the fourth quarter, or it's the eleventh hour. Whatever you call it, John McCain came into the last debate needing a game changer. He is down more than seven percentage points nationally in the's poll average and his deficits in swing states suggest an electoral landslide might be in the offing.

Worse than that, McCain's own supporters have had it with his on again-off again attacks on Barack Obama's associations with questionable characters (e.g. Bill Ayers and Tony Rezko) and the now-infamous ACORN, his flat-out refusal to engage on Reverend Wright, and his delinquent unveiling of his economic security package. As to the latter, Republicans wondered if he would  finally put all the pieces together and launch a successful strike on his opponent. Larry Kudlow was representative of many conservatives when he mused on Tuesday:

But cutting taxes for businesses, capital gains, and individuals does give McCain a lot of pro-growth meat on the bone for the big debate. Now, if only McCain can succeed in selling these measures. ... Really, the McCain tax contrast with Obama is not hard to make. In the last debate McCain referred to Obama's tax hikes as Herbert Hoover. I'd like to see Hoover reemerge tomorrow night.

Meanwhile, Obama came into the debate with one goal: no gaffes. If he could present the same calm, nonthreatening image he had in the first two debates and fend off McCain's barbs he would be essentially home free.

So the question remained: would McCain go for a knockout blow? Would he finally ask Obama what he was doing all those years with unrepentant terrorist Ayers, or find some other means finally to knock Obama off balance? (Conservative columnist Quin Hillyer, no McCain cheerleader, postulated before the debate that "McCain is just the cussed, unconventional, willful, irritable, Odd Man to pull it off.")

Well, voters expecting some fireworks didn't get a full display, but there were some sparks. Unfortunately for McCain, he did not present fluid arguments, even on points on which he had the upper hand.