HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — A pugnacious John McCain repeatedly questioned the character and veracity of Barack Obama on Wednesday night, portraying the Democrat as an extremist in both his policies and choice of personal associates. Obama parried in their final presidential debate by suggesting the Republican was more focused on attacks than addressing the concerns of Americans.
The 90-minute session was by far the liveliest and most caustic encounter between the two men. It was not immediately evident, however, whether anything occurred at New York's Hofstra University to change the dynamic of the race, which appears to favor Obama with less than three weeks until election day.
McCain was the aggressor from the start. The Arizona senator sought to distance himself from the unpopular White House incumbent more explicitly than ever. "If you wanted to run against President Bush," McCain told Obama, "you should have run four years ago."
Undeterred, Obama responded, "If I've 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."
McCain cited differences with fellow Republicans on spending and other issues, challenging Obama to cite where he had broken with Democrats. The Illinois senator said the first major bill he backed in Washington was to limit lawsuits, "which wasn't very popular with trial lawyers," a major Democratic constituency. He noted that he had also differed with his party on education and environmental policies.
"Sen. Obama," McCain responded dryly, "your argument for standing up to the leaders of your party isn't very convincing."
But the night's most vigorous exchanges involved a cast of the campaign's walk-on characters.
Asked about the increasingly nasty tone of the race, McCain cited remarks made last weekend by Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a hero of the civil rights movement. Lewis expressed concern about the slurs used at some McCain rallies and invoked Alabama's segregationist governor, the late George Wallace.
McCain called Lewis' comments "very unfair and totally inappropriate" and chided Obama for not repudiating them. "Every time there's been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them," McCain said.
Obama said Lewis was concerned that at some rallies McCain supporters shouted "things like 'terrorist' and 'kill him' and that your running mate . . . didn't stop, didn't say, 'Hold on a second, that's kind of out of line.' And I think congressman Lewis' point was that we have to be careful about how we deal with our supporters."
That said, Obama noted he immediately disassociated himself from Lewis' comment, adding, "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."
McCain, however, persisted. Moments later, he demanded to know the extent of Obama's relationship with William Ayers, a Vietnam-era radical, and ACORN, a left-leaning organization accused of voter registration fraud. "All of these things need to be examined," McCain said.
Obama said his connections to ACORN were limited to working to implement Illinois' "motor voter law," which allowed people to register to vote when they registered their cars or obtained driver's licenses.
Obama condemned Ayers' violent past and said, "Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign." Ayers helped found the radical group that came to be known as the Weather Underground, which planned a series of bombings to protest the Vietnam War. Decades later, Obama and Ayers, who is now a University of Illinois professor, served on an education reform board in Chicago. "He has never been involved in this campaign," Obama said. "And he will not advise me in the White House.
"I think the fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Sen. McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me," Obama said.
"My campaign is about getting this economy back on track, about creating jobs, about a brighter future for America," McCain replied.
The format differed from previous debates. In the first, Obama and McCain stood behind lecterns. The second was a town hall-style forum. On Wednesday night, the candidates were seated at a table a few feet apart, with the moderator, CBS' Bob Schieffer, facing them.
Several networks broadcast the debate in split screen, and it showed a striking contrast in demeanor. Obama laughed derisively during several of McCain's attacks but otherwise remained composed. McCain sighed, smirked and rolled his eyes during several Obama responses. At one point, he opened his eyes wide in wonder.
Though much of the evening was spent rehashing familiar issues, the two candidates did break some ground.