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Editorial: Plumbing the debate

While presidential debates are sometimes made memorable by pithy phrases ó “there you go again” or “read my lips; no new taxes” ó the third and final McCain-Obama debate will go down in history as the night where Joe Sixpack finally yielded his place as the iconic American everyman to Joe the Plumber.
Joe the Plumber got so many mentions Thursday night from John McCain, you’d have thought he had offered a brilliant new plan to unclog America’s balky financial systems or flush fat-cat corporate lobbyists out of the halls of Congress. Or maybe Joe the Plumber could team up with Larry the Cable Guy to form a third-party ticket. Universal faucet repairs and free HBO! Now there’s an October surprise voters might get behind.
Other than Joe the Plumber, the final debate yielded little fodder for the consideration of that dwindling slice of the electorate that hasn’t decided what it wants. Universal health-care coverage or refundable tax credits? Extend the Bush tax cuts and lower corporate rates or limit cuts to those making under $250,000 and raise taxes on high earners and corporations? Go nuclear or focus on wind and solar power? Professorial calm or rock-jawed combativeness?
Actually, in addition to Joe the Plumber, this debate included another figure who hadn’t surfaced in the candidates’ two previous face-to-face encounters: William Ayers, he of the “Weatherman bombing” background. As the GOP ticket tries to stabilize slipping poll numbers, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has made numerous hyperbolic references to Obama’s “palling around with terrorists.” But this was the first time the issue has entered a televised debate. Besides bringing up Ayers, McCain also alluded to ACORN, a community organizing group that Obama has supported and that has been accused of padding voter registration rolls.
If this was intended to ruffle Obama’s demeanor, it didn’t succeed. He condemned Ayers’ violent past and denied that his associations with the 63-year-old Ayers, now a professor at the University of Chicago, or with ACORN were as significant or sinister as GOP attack ads have suggested. “I think the fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me,” he responded.
McCain made a better showing than in previous forums. He was more animated, more intense and more assertive. Yet, if what he needed was a knockout punch ó or at least a devastating sound bite ó he didn’t deliver it. And while Obama’s steady performance may have offered more reassurance to those already in his camp, it’s unlikely to seal the deal with true undecideds.
With more than two weeks remaining before Election Day, we could still have some surprises. This debate didn’t produce any. Obama continued his strategy of linking McCain to the Bush administration’s policies. McCain tried to score points through shadowy allusions to an aging ex-terrorist with tenure. Partisans will pick their favorite. But in the end, it was Joe the Plumber who grabbed the spotlight.

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