The star of Wednesday night's final presidential debate was neither Sen. John McCain nor his rival, Sen. Barack Obama. It was "Joe the Plumber," aka Joe Wurzelbacher, a brawny, T-shirt-clad plumber whose shaved head gives him a passing resemblance to Mr. Clean. His name came up 26 times during the debate -- a stand-in for hard-working, upwardly mobile Americans.
Obama met Wurzelbacher on Sunday during a visit to Holland, Ohio, where a TV crew captured a lively exchange between them.
"Do you believe in the American dream?" Wurzelbacher asked Obama.
"Yes, sir," Obama replied.
In the ensuing conversation, which lasted almost six minutes, Wurzelbacher explained that he is trying to buy a business and worries that he will pay higher taxes under Obama's proposal.
"Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?" he asked.
"It's not that I want to punish your success," replied Obama. "I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they've got a chance for success too. My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody. . . . I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."
Obama concluded by telling Wurzelbacher, who looked dubious: "Even if I don't get your vote, I am going to work for you."
Early in the debate, McCain accused Obama of promulgating "class warfare" and introduced "Joe the Plumber" to America.
"Joe wants to buy the business that he has been in for all of these years, worked 10, 12 hours a day," said McCain. " . . . But he looked at your tax plan, and he saw that he was going to pay much higher taxes."
He continued: "When Sen. Obama ended up his conversation with Joe the Plumber -- we need to spread the wealth around. In other words, we're going to take Joe's money, give it to Sen. Obama and let him spread the wealth around. . . . The whole premise behind Sen. Obama's plans are class warfare."
Obama replied that his plan will cut taxes for 95% of Americans.
"Nobody likes taxes," he added. "I would prefer that none of us had to pay taxes, including myself. But, ultimately, we've got to pay for the core investments that make this economy strong, and somebody's got to do it."
The phrase "Joe the Plumber" was mentioned nine times during the debate. At one point, McCain even referred to him as "my old buddy, Joe the Plumber."
Wurzelbacher told the Associated Press: "It's pretty surreal, man, my name being mentioned in a presidential campaign."
It was unclear whether the McCain campaign had been in touch with him. However, in a post-debate interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric, Wurzelbacher echoed familiar McCain themes. He said that Obama is well-spoken but that "there's got to be some action behind it."
Wurzelbacher told Couric that he had always wanted to question a presidential candidate "and really corner them and get them to answer a question of -- for once instead of tap-dancing around it. And, unfortunately, I asked the question, but I still got a tap dance . . . almost as good as Sammy Davis Jr."
Still, he refused to say which candidate he would vote for.
Spinners of all stripes invoked America's newly minted folk hero.
"There are a lot of 'Joe the Plumbers' out there, but the 'Joe the Plumbers' are going to get hosed by the McCain economic policies," said Obama campaign manager David Axelrod.
McCain's economic advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin countered: "This is a real American, who actually now understands exactly what Barack Obama is up to, and he's appalled."
Times staff writers James Rainey and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.