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Cool Obama bests angry McCain - and Joe The Plumber

John McCain came out swinging in the last debate, and he did it almost exclusively in the language of television.

The Republican candidate started out trying to reduce complicated economic issues to a man in Ohio (Joe Wurzelbacher) whom he repeatedly referred to as Joe the Plumber. And then, throughout the debate, McCain directly and emotionally confronted Barack Obama whom he failed to even address in their first debate.

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In TV terms, I am sure some analysts will say it was McCain's best performance, especially during the first third of the debate as he gave a big TV embrace to his new best friend, Joe The Plumber. But under the heading of "he who lives by the sword," McCain may have become too emotional at points in the second leg of his strategy, the continued attacks on Obama.

While emotion is generally good on TV, there is a danger in being too "hot," and McCain might have sounded that way to some viewers at a couple of key points later in the debate -- particularly when he defended people at his campaign rallies against charges that they were inappropriately hostile to Obama. The danger here is that McCain's unbridled ire left an impression in some viewers' minds of another kind of TV character: the cranky, irritable grandpa.

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And I have to tell you, that is the guy I saw in the glowering reaction shots of McCain as Obama spoke. And in my opinion, that is a losing persona.

Obama, on the other hand, again seemed cool, calm and mostly collected. The question is whether viewers will read his demeanor as properly presidential – or, perhaps, indifferent to the pain and anger they feel.

My guess is that in a time of crisis like this, a cool hand on the tiller seems like a good thing, though, Obama did seem a bit academic at times about the fear many citizens now feel.

McCain, meanwhile, repeatedly told the viewers he felt their anger -- not their fear, but their anger.

McCain gambled big time Wednesday night. He had no other choice being as far behind as he is. But I believe he lost.

I also think we, the people, lost because at a time of national crisis, this debate was so obviously dumbed down by one of the candidates.

Joe The Plumber, who was identified as a real person met by Obama on the campaign trail last week, instantly became the personification of the undecided, white, middle-class voter in a Rust Belt swing state – a very important person.

But instead of answering moderator Bob Schieffer's question about how they would deal with the economic crisis in policy terms, the two candidates started arguing about who would make Joe The Plumber happier.

McCain was the one who introduced Joe, and forced the issue so that Obama did not have much choice but to talk about Joe. But I stopped counting after the seventh reference to the Ohio plumber in the first 12 minutes.

And yet, McCain was still talking about the Joe The Plumber an hour into the debate – looking into the camera and promising Joe greater happiness under a McCain presidency.

"I'm happy to talk to you, too, Joe, if you're out there," Obama said sounding a little reluctant to revisit this sitcom-like TV persona to which his opponent was playing.

I could not help wondering whether Joe The Plumber is related to Joe Six Pack, who was invoked by McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, in her debate. Or, maybe he's a descendant of Carlton The Doorman from the 1970s CBS sitcom, Rhoda.

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I don't know about you. But it left me feeling talked down to like a child – and angry that this was the level of debate initiated and sustained by McCain while America sits on the precipice of another Great Depression.

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