The Note: Plumb Broke

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- If your campaign is clogged, call Joe the Plumber. (Then call him again, and again.)

The third and final debate might have been a good first debate for Sen. John McCain. Scattered across the stage at Hofstra University was the broad case against Sen. Barack Obama -- along with a plumber who gives McCain the start of an economic message, in an old GOP comfort zone.

But McCain gave voters an awful lot to digest Thursday night: He played all the angles at once -- a lot for a campaign that's generally settled on one new campaign message per day.

McCain had what was probably his strongest debate night -- yet even if there was time to build on something, it's not clear what that something would be. No single moment (or moment after moment after moment, Joe) appears likely to change the direction of a race that's shifted clearly against McCain.

What's left is a campaign running out of time and options -- plunging ahead on a diminished map, in a hostile climate, out-spent and out-maneuvered, though not, for a night at least, out-hustled.

ABC's George Stephanopoulos scores it as McCain's best performance -- and reports that Joe the Plumber (and surely the story his story tells -- he's already been invited to a McCain rally, the plumber himself told Diane Sawyer Thursday morning) may make it into late McCain advertisements.

But Obama's win on style gave him the edge he came to Long Island with: "Ultimately, McCain didn't do enough to stop people from voting for Obama," Stephanopoulos says.

"He really didn't land a knockout blow on Barack Obama, and Obama appeared very calm," Stephanopoulos said on "Good Morning America" Thursday. Obama, meanwhile, "won the battle of the split-screens."

McCain had his best moments early: "It looked like Mr. McCain might, just might, raise the level of his game in throwing Mr. Obama off his," Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times. "But then Mr. McCain began to undercut his own effort to paint Mr. Obama as just another negative politician. Mr. McCain grew angry as he attacked Mr. Obama over his ties to William Ayers, the Chicago professor who helped found the Weather Underground terrorism group. Suddenly, Mr. McCain was no longer gaining ground by showing command on the top issue for voters, the economy; he was turning tetchy over a 1960s radical."

Palinesque? "It seemed as if Mr. McCain was veering from one hot button to another, pressing them all, hoping to goad Mr. Obama into an outburst or a mistake that would alter the shape of the race in its last three weeks," Healy writes.

"John McCain threw everything he could at Barack Obama here Wednesday night," Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post. "This debate may have been McCain's strongest performance of the three, but it was also an example of how Obama has used the encounters to try to show that he has not only the knowledge of the issues but also the temperament and the judgment that voters are looking for in a successor to President Bush."

"In the end, given the overwhelming desire for change in the country, that may be enough to keep him in the driver's seat. McCain will have to continue to press his case relentlessly in the final days to change the shape of the campaign," Balz writes.

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