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Final McCain, Obama Debate Personal, Pointed

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The presidential candidates took the stage on another day when stock markets plunged. They debated taxes. They debated the tone of each other's campaigns. They also took time to debate a man named William Ayers and another named Joe the plumber. Through much of the night, Republican John McCain was the one throwing punches, and the many people watching included NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: Last night the gloves finally did come off with both men sitting side by side at a small, round table facing the moderator, CBS's Bob Schieffer. The tension between them was obvious, and the debate got pointed and personal. Schieffer asked them about the tone of the campaign. The Obama camp has said McCain was losing his bearings, that he was erratic, out of touch, and angry. McCain's team has called Obama dishonorable, dangerous, and disrespectful, and said he palled around with terrorists.

BOB SCHIEFFER: Are each of you tonight willing to sit at this table and say to each other's face what your campaigns and the people in your campaigns have said about each other?

LIASSON: McCain went first. He said it was unacceptable that Congressman John Lewis had accused McCain and his running mate of engaging in the kind of racial politics of segregationists like George Wallace.

JOHN MCCAIN: And Senator Obama, you didn't repudiate those remarks. Every time there's been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them. I hope that Senator Obama will repudiate those remarks that were made by Congressman John Lewis, very unfair and totally inappropriate.

LIASSON: McCain went on to say he would run a truthful campaign.

MCCAIN: This is a tough campaign. And it's a matter of fact that Senator Obama has spent more money on negative ads than any political campaign in history. And I can prove it.

LIASSON: While it's true Obama has spent more money on negative ads than any candidate in history, it's only because he's spent more money on advertising in general than any candidate in history. Obama had an accusation of his own about advertising.

BARACK OBAMA: Bob, your network just did a poll showing that two-thirds of the American people think that Senator McCain is running a negative campaign versus one-third of mine. And a hundred percent, John, of your ads - a hundred percent of them - have been negative.

MCCAIN: It's not true.

OBAMA: It absolutely is true. And now, I think the American people are less interested in our hurt feelings during the course of the campaign than addressing the issues that matter to them so deeply.

LIASSON: According to a study by the University of Wisconsin, 100 percent of McCain's ads have been negative, but only in the last 30 days. McCain, who has been vastly outspent by Obama, has run many positive ads in the past. On Tuesday, McCain said that he would bring up Obama's relationship with William Ayers, an unrepentant former Weather Underground bomber. And last night, McCain did.

MCCAIN: Mr. Ayers, I don't care about an old, washed-up terrorist. But as Senator Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship. 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. The same front outfit organization that your campaign gave $832,000 for, quote, "lighting and site selection." So, all of these things need to be examined, of course.

LIASSON: Obama said he had no involvement with ACORN's registration drive. He represented the group which advocates for low-income people in 1995 in a case involving a federal voter registration law. And he was ready with a defense for the attack on his relationship with Ayers who he said had never been part of his campaign.

OBAMA: Those are the people, Democrats and Republicans, who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House. And 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.

LIASSON: McCain also had to defend himself from a guilt by association attack, one that Obama has been making relentlessly throughout this campaign. In fact it's Obama's central argument against McCain that he represents nothing more than a third Bush term.

MCCAIN: Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you want 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. Senator Obama talks about voting for budgets. He voted twice for a budget resolution that increases the taxes on individuals making $42,000 a year.

LIASSON: Obama rejected that charge, saying everyone who has looked at it has disputed the claim.

OBAMA: Even FOX News disputes it, and that doesn't happen very often when it comes to accusations about me. So the fact of the matter is that if I have occasionally mistaken your policies for George Bush's policies, it's because on the core economic issues that matter to the American people, on tax policy, on energy policy, on spending priorities, you have been a vigorous supporter of President Bush. Now, you've shown independence, commendable independence, on some key issues like torture, for example. And I give you enormous credit for that. But when it comes to economic policies, essentially what you are proposing is eight more years of the same thing.

LIASSON: On a day when the Dow Jones Average had its second-worst point drop in history, both candidates were asked about their new proposals to address the economic crisis. McCain wants to cut taxes on capital gains and unemployment benefits. Obama wants tax cuts for creating jobs and new spending on public works. McCain challenged Obama on his plans to cut taxes, citing a particular American voter.

MCCAIN: I would like to mention that a couple of days ago, Senator Obama was out in Ohio. And he had an encounter with a guy who's a plumber. The name is Joe Wurzelberger.

LIASSON: McCain said Obama's plans would deny Wurzelbacher, the correct pronunciation, his goal of buying his own plumbing company.

MCCAIN: And what you want to do to Joe the Plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business.

SCHIEFFER: Is that what you want to do?

MCCAIN: That's what Joe believes.

OBAMA: He's been watching some ads of Senator McCain's.

LIASSON: And with that a star was born. Joe the Plumber became the stand-in for average Americans struggling to stay afloat in a difficult economy. Over the course of the debate, Obama and McCain invoked Joe's name more than two dozen times.

OBAMA: Now, the conversation I had with Joe the Plumber, what I essentially said to him was, five years ago, when you were in a position to buy your business, you needed a tax cut then.

MCCAIN: I want Joe the Plumber to spread that wealth around.

OBAMA: (Unintelligible) tax cuts to Joe the Plumber before...

MCCAIN: Now, my old buddy, Joe, Joe the Plumber, is out there.

OBAMA: And I'm happy to talk to you, Joe, too, if you're out there.

MCCAIN: Hey, Joe, you're rich. Congratulations.

LIASSON: McCain's job has been much harder, to separate himself from President Bush, offer his answer to an economic crisis that many voters blame on his party, and at the same time reverse the dynamic of the race by sowing doubts about Obama's readiness to be president. McCain went out at it aggressively and methodically, but Obama was able to deflect most of his attacks. This was the last time the two men will be on stage together, and what both of them agreed has been a very tough campaign has just 19 days to go. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Hempstead, New York.

MONTAGNE: To hear last night's debate, or to hear it again, download the audio at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.

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