HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - John McCain confronted Barack Obama, sometimes angrily, over taxes and spending, personal associates and political tactics last night in by far the most spirited debate of the campaign.
Economics was the focus of the third and final presidential debate that, in an eerie rerun of their last encounter, took place within hours of another stomach-churning plunge on Wall Street.
McCain was the aggressor from the outset, accusing Obama of practicing "class warfare" by calling for tax increases on those earning more than $250,000 a year.
The Republican senator spiced his attack by quoting his rival to the effect that Obama's policies would "spread the wealth around."
McCain also had a vigorous new answer to Obama's familiar charge, repeated last night, that President Bush's economic policies would continue under a McCain administration.
"Senator Obama, I am not President Bush," said McCain. "If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I'm going to give a new direction to this economy in this country."
Obama replied that "if I occasionally have mistaken your policies for George Bush's policies, it's because on the core economic issues that matter to the American people ... you have been a vigorous supporter of President Bush."
The Republican shot back that he had "the scars to prove" his apostasy on issues of importance to Bush and his party, including excessive government spending, the conduct of the war in Iraq and the Medicare prescription drug plan.
McCain, who described the debate as a "very healthy" discussion, leveled one of the harshest charges of the campaign.
He accused ACORN, a community organization that the Republicans have made an increasing focus of attacks, of "maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."
Using rhetoric straight out of the early 1950s Red-scare era, McCain described ACORN as "a front organization" and said its connections to Obama's campaign "need to be examined."
Obama replied that ACORN has paid organizers to register voters and that some of those hired by the organization filled out the forms themselves and didn't really register voters.
"It had nothing to do with us. We were not involved," said Obama, who claimed his only connection with the organization was in representing them as a lawyer in a suit to enforce the motor-voter registration law in Illinois.
However, he did not respond to McCain's charge about $832,000 that Obama's campaign spent during the primaries for what it says were canvassing activities.
The Obama campaign originally had said the expense included "lighting and site selection," as McCain pointed out, then later filed an amended spending report.
At numerous points, Obama shrugged off McCain's attacks with a bemused smile. At other times, he described the charges as untrue, including McCain's largely discredited claim that Obama once voted to raise taxes on those earning as little as $42,000 a year.
"Even Fox News disputes it," Obama said, "and that doesn't happen very often when it comes to accusations about me."
As his aides had promised, McCain hammered away at Obama's associations with an early supporter, Bill Ayers, a former 1960s radical, who once served on a foundation board in Chicago with Obama.
Obama responded that Ayers has no connection with his presidential campaign and shifted the conversation to the associates who would serve in his administration, such as former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker, appointed by both Republican and Democratic presidents; Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, an expert on foreign policy; and Gen. Jim Jones, a former NATO commander.
In a prolonged exchange over the tone of the campaign, McCain criticized Obama's commercials as misleading but also expressed "regret" over "some of the negative aspects of both campaigns."
McCain went on to criticize as "unacceptable" a recent claim by Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a former aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., that compared McCain and running mate Sarah Palin to some of the anti-black violence associated with the civil rights movement. McCain accused Obama of never apologizing for his supporter's remarks.
Obama, noting that his campaign and Lewis himself had said the original remarks were inappropriate, accused McCain of waging a 100 percent negative ad drive and leveling other "pretty tough accusations."
He explained that Lewis' criticism had been prompted by Palin's failure to silence hecklers at campaign events who were shouting "when my name came up, things like 'terrorist' and 'kill him.' "
Returning to one of the earliest themes of his candidacy, Obama said that "the important point here is, though, that the American people have become so cynical about our politics, because all they see is a tit-for-tat and back-and-forth."
He added, "But when people suggest that I pal around with terrorists, then we're not talking about issues."
"Well, I don't mind being attacked for the next three weeks," Obama said, then tried to steer the discussion away from campaign tactics and back to the struggles of ordinary voters.
"What the American people can't afford, though, is four more years of failed economic policies," he said. "And what they deserve over the next four weeks is that we talk about what's most pressing to them: the economic crisis."
McCain, at several points, derided Obama's "eloquence" in a way that made it clear he considered his rival to be a slippery politician.
He also delivered attacks, in a patronizing tone, including over Obama's failure to travel south of the U.S. border and over public education policy in Washington.
Three times makes a trend
For three straight debates, both candidates danced around a question of which of their own campaign proposals they would cut back on to reflect economic realities and help balance the budget. Sen. Barack Obama talked about trimming Medicare spending on private insurance companies, and Sen. John McCain mentioned eliminating subsidies for ethanol. But once again, they would not say whether any of their own proposals would need to be abandoned.
Best attempt to run away from the unpopular incumbent
McCain, trying to rebuff Obama's argument that a McCain administration would mean four more years of President Bush's policies, said: "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I'm going to give a new direction to this economy in this country."
The candidates engaged in a pointed back-and-forth over the tone of their advertising. "It's a matter of fact that Senator Obama has spent more money on negative ads than any political campaign in history," McCain said, "and I can prove it." Obama responded that CBS News "just did a poll, showing that two-thirds of the American people think that Senator McCain is running a negative campaign. ... And 100 percent, John, of your ads, 100 percent of them have been negative." Responded McCain: "It's not true." Obama shot back: "It absolutely is true."
Most sweeping new charge
"We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama's relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."
- McCain, referring to a contentious voter registration drive by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which has yielded fraudulent applications in many states.
Most specific answer that really wasn't
"Zero." - Obama, finally answering a question from McCain over the penalty that would be charged to those who can afford health insurance but don't obtain it under Obama's plan. But Obama was referring only to small- business owners. He has not said what the penalty would be for individuals.
Baltimore Sun staff reports