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Mr. Nice Senator Rarely Goes in for the Kill Tonight

11:46 PM, Oct 15, 2008 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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I don't buy the idea that McCain had to do something phenomenal tonight to pull this race out. Debates, especially this cycle, aren't made for game-changing, and his margin is small enough that slow and steady could conceivably pull him out.

But a better performance than he gave tonight would have been extremely helpful. I thought McCain clearly won the first debate, both on performance and points. I thought McCain was righter than Obama in the second debate, but not as effective. Tonight, I thought he was about the same as the second debate, but higher stakes and more urgency made the performance more problematic.

That's not to say McCain wasn't good. He was. He continues to carry the right message on taxes, on health care, on foreign policy, and economic growth. But did he carry it well enough?

Joe the Plumber will certainly be a centerpiece of the cable network discussions this week, which means that particular YouTube will be played and played again, both on TV and by voters. This is an unquestionably good thing for McCain, as many Americans don't much like the idea of "spreading the wealth around" after they've worked hard to earn it.

McCain seemed almost to drop the ball by declining to mention "spreading the wealth" in his first go-round, but he came back around to it after Obama's dishonest retort, which included an answer he never even came close to giving Joe:

Now, the conversation I had with Joe the plumber, what I essentially said to him was, five years ago, when you were in the position to buy your business, you needed a tax cut then. And what I want to do is to make sure that the plumber, the nurse, the firefighter, the teacher, the young entrepreneur who doesn't yet have money, I want to give them a tax break now. And that requires us to make some important choices.

On vouchers and his own record of bipartisan work, McCain was forceful, hitting Obama over the head with the success of the D.C. vouchers and offering a very serious list of bipartisan compromises to Obama's empty claims of the same.

Whether it be bringing climate change to the floor of the Senate for the first time; whether it be opposition to spending and earmarks; whether it be the issue of torture; whether it be the conduct of the war in Iraq, which I vigorously opposed; whether it be on fighting the pharmaceutical companies on Medicare -- on prescription drugs, importation; whether it be fighting for an HMO patients bill of rights; whether it be the establishment of the 9/11 commission, I have a long record of reform and fighting through on the floor of the United States Senate...Senator Obama, your argument for standing up to the leaders of your party isn't very convincing.

McCain was proudly pro-life, but his attacks on Obama's abortion record lacked fire, allowing Obama to utter this utter falsehood unchallenged:

If -- if it sounds incredible that I would vote to withhold lifesaving treatment from an infant, that's because it's not true.

His argument on judges, and the bipartisan compromise required to get confirmations (which Obama did not join), was very strong, but he stopped short of saying, "The next president may have the responsibility of appointing three or more judges to the Supreme Court who will affect the law of the land for many, many years to come. I have a record on this issue, and have been honest about the judicial philosophy my appointees would represent. Judging by his description, Mr. Obama wants judges to be lawmakers, social workers, and therapists. With all due respect, Sen. Obama, that is not their job, and the American people aren't up for lifetime appointments for judges who misunderstand that."
McCain was strong on his defense of free trade, referring specifically to our lack of agreement with Columbia and what it's costing our country, but he failed to make Obama's protectionism look like a problem in an economic sense. He did, however, make it a national security issue skillfully:

So Senator Obama, who has never traveled south of our border, opposes the Colombia free trade agreement; the same country that's helping us try to stop the flow of drugs, into our country, that's killing young Americans, and also the country that just freed three Americans that -- that will help us create jobs in America, because they will be a market for our goods and products without have to pay -- without us having to pay the billions of dollar -- the billion dollars and more that we've already paid.

Free trade with Colombia is something that's a no-brainer. But maybe you ought to travel down there and visit them and maybe you could understand it a lot better.