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.

"The visuals of the night did not necessarily work in McCain's favor," ABC's Jake Tapper reported on "Good Morning America Thursday. "Some said Obama seemed to be doing Muhammad Ali's old 'rope-a-dope' strategy -- assuming a protected stance and letting his opponent hit him in the hopes he'll become tired and make mistakes."

(You think Hillary Clinton knows something about McCain's frustration?)

The post-debate polls weren't even close, suggesting not just that Obama is winning, but that McCain is being tuned out.

CNN's poll gave it to Obama 58-31.

CBS' poll scored it 53-22 for Obama among uncommitted voters.

Much closer in the Politico/InsiderAdvantage poll: 49-46 for Obama, with McCain carrying independents.

Obama carried Frank Luntz's focus group, too. "Obama talks like a governor, John McCain talks more like a senator," Luntz said on "GMA."

This, for what looked like McCain's best: "The Republican's tone was crisper, sharper and more cutting than it had been in the first two debates. He kept Obama on the defensive for much of the 90-minute forum, attacking him for everything from his association with '60s radical Bill Ayers to his decision not to take public financing for his campaign," USA Today's Susan Page writes.

"McCain's very intensity may have at least prompted some voters to take a second look at Obama and his policies," The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos writes. "McCain's performance wasn't friendly or gracious; but it may have been effective."

Time's Mark Halperin gives McCain an A-, Obama a B. On McCain: "It was an impressive performance from a politician who is generally more comfortable offering broad statements and displaying his compelling personality, than focusing on detail and nitty-gritty."

Really, we only care about the plumber-pundit, who's not saying who he's voting for (and said he was surprised by the mentions), but seems ready to take a plunge:

"Just because you work a little harder to have a little bit more money taken from you -- that's scary," plumber Joe Wurzelbacher told ABC's Diane Sawyer, in an exclusive interview on "Good Morning America" Thursday. "Because you're successful, you have to pay more than everybody else? . . . That's a very socialist view, and it's incredibly wrong."

"To be honest with you, that infuriates me," Wurzelbacher told Nightline's Terry Moran, referencing Obama's tax plan. "That's just completely wrong."

(Does he like being known to the nation as Joe the Plumber? "My son's digging it," he said. "It's kind of neat -- I gotta admit, it's kinda neat.")

Sen. Joe Biden likes Joe and all, but he's eyeing more average Joes: "We're worried about Joe, the guy who owns the gas station, the barber, the grocer. Ninety-eight percent of the small business people in America make less than $250,000 a year. And they're going to get a real break under our plan" Biden tells ABC's Diane Sawyer.

Biden, on McCain: "John was better tonight than he has been in the last two nights, particularly in the beginning. But he seemed to get more angry as he went on, and he seemed to focus more in response on attacks."

Team McCain has someone to recommend: "Plumber Joe tonight. Plumber Joe, people. Plumber Joe is representative of a lot of people that need their hard-earned dollars to build the American dream," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds tells ABC's David Wright.

"No one night turns things around. We have 20 more nights," says McCain adviser Charlie Black. (Actually, we're down to 19.)

Yes, the plumber will be part of them: "Sen. John McCain, with his back against the wall, used the Ohio blue-collar worker as a symbol of how Sen. Barack Obama's policies represented a form of class warfare and efforts to redistribute the nation's wealth," the Washington Times' Joseph Curl writes.

Guess who wants him on the trail? "We are going to certainly extend an invitation for him to join and see if he is willing to come along and talk about what is clearly a metaphor for what will exist if Barack Obama is president," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis tells ABC's Ron Claiborne.

Could this all have mattered much more three weeks ago? "Obama mostly remained calm in the face of McCain's onslaught, sometimes even laughing at him. But the Democratic nominee was forced to spend time defending and explaining his plans, his policies, his supporters and even himself," Jill Zuckman and John McCormick write in the Chicago Tribune.

"McCain's problem at Hofstra University was clear -- he needed a solid performance like this to win over voters in the first debate, not the last, when Obama is showing signs of pulling away from McCain in the national polls," Newsday's Craig Gordon writes. "In short, it just looked like too little, too late."

But some things are bigger than the candidates: "It was John McCain's last big chance to tame the massive headwinds buffeting his fading campaign. He gave it his Navy blue-and-gold all, but a feisty showing couldn't reverse a national psyche weary of the Republican brand," Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News.

After not doing enough, was he doing too much, and therefore getting nothing done?

"No obvious reason for McCain to be optimistic that he has turned his troubled campaign in a new direction," write Politico's John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei. "To the contrary, what McCain offered at Hofstra University was simply a more intense, more glaring version of his campaign in familiar light -- an edgy, even angry performance that in many ways seemed like a metaphor for his unfocused, wildly improvisational campaign."

Bill Ayers and ACORN look like McCain's best shots -- alas, probably not enough: "In all, a lot said, a lot not changed," Lynn Sweet writes in the Chicago Sun-Times.

"Four mentions of anger in the first two minutes. And McCain was barely warmed up," Newsweek's Richard Wolffe writes.

"John McCain brought his best -- and also his worst -- to his final debate with Barack Obama Wednesday night, arguably his best and last chance to change the landscape of the presidential campaign and overtake Obama," McClatchy's Steven Thomma writes.

"McCain had some good sound bites, but what he really needed was a sound strategy - several months ago," GOP strategist Todd Domke writes in his Boston Globe op-ed.

The throw-it-all-out-there campaign threw it all out there: "There was no single moment that was likely to reverberate in the minds of American voters and change the course of an election that has moved dramatically toward Obama in the last several weeks. But the 90-minute debate was a perfect distillation of McCain's general election campaign, with all of its inconsistent messages," Cathleen Decker writes in the Los Angeles Times.

"The clouds did not part. Heavenly choirs were not heard. Instead, the American public heard angry attacks from McCain," Politico's Roger Simon writes.

"It was clear that despite McCain's longer experience, Obama is a more able and persuasive debater. Game. Set. Match?" Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh writes.

The playing field was not level -- since this is about an election, not points: "McCain simply needed a breakout performance and he failed to provide one. He went into the forum trailing Obama in polls of the contest and he came out of in the same position," David Yepsen writes in his Des Moines Register column.

What McCain did do (finally): "You can talk all you want about Joe the Plumber, but the moment of the final presidential debate, held last night at Hofstra University on Long Island, came when John McCain said, quickly and cleanly, 'Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago,' " National Review's Byron York reports.

Yet don't overlook this part of the strategy (and if he didn't attack, that fact would not be overlooked): "McCain clearly brought Obama down a peg or two by trying to make him out to be a lying liberal run of the mill politician. That plays well to the base," the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody writes.

Or this part of the strategy (what's worse than a disappointed running mate?): "Barack Obama even has called John McCain out on this saying, 'Hey, if you've got something to say, say it to my face in a debate,' " Gov. Sarah Palin told WMUR-TV, ABC's New Hampshire affiliate, before the debate. "So we'll see tonight if John McCain does that."

For her part, what she's said, she'd say again: "Although Sarah Palin did not mention Barack Obama's ties to former domestic terrorist Bill Ayers during her speech at Dover High School yesterday, the Alaska governor said afterward she would not hesitate to repeat on the stump that Obama is 'palling around with terrorists,' " John DiStaso writes in the New Hampshire Union-Leader.

"I'd use that term again in a heartbeat," Palin said in an interview, "because, I'll tell you, when you kick off your political career in the living room of an unrepentant, known domestic terrorist and then you continue that association with him via e-mails, phone calls, sitting on boards together, working on -- quote, unquote -- education reform together, characterizing that as 'palling around,' I would use that characterization again."

She gets creative on "Troopergate": "She said the state's Web site invites Alaskans to voice concerns about any state trooper to the commissioner's office, 'and that's what my husband did,' " DiStaso writes.

And who's handling the baseball advice -- Rudy Giuliani? "We're counting on you because Red Sox fans know how to turn an underdog into a victor, and that's exactly what you can help us do on November Fourth!" Palin said in Salem, N.H., Wednesday.

Per ABC's Imtiyaz Delawala: "While Palin's support for the Red Sox could be seen as noble support for the underdog as they stand on the brink of elimination, there's just one problem with her remarks: Palin made nearly identical comments in Florida last week in praise of the Tampa Bay Rays."

This is hate speech: "As Palin made her Red Sox reference, one man shouted, 'Obama's a Yankees fan!' "

Best spin you can bark at: "I knew McCain before there was indoor plumbing," Triumph the Insult Comic Dog told reporters in the spin room, per Politico's Ben Smith.

Meanwhile -- watch that map roll back: "The Republican National Committee is halting presidential ads in Wisconsin and Maine, turning much of its attention to usually Republican states where GOP nominee John McCain shows signs of faltering," the AP's Jim Kuhnhenn reports.

The new Time/CNN poll has Obama opening up a 10-point lead in Virginia, 53-43.

"Senator Barack Obama is on offense, and Senator John McCain on defense, and the next 19 days offer little chance of a change in that dynamic," Politico's Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin report. "A top adviser, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, said Obama is considering expanding his active campaign back into North Dakota and Georgia, from which he'd shifted resources, and into the Appalachian heartland of West Virginia and Kentucky. . . . Meanwhile, John McCain will retreat to set up defensive bulwarks, in a last-ditch strategy of red state hold 'em."

George Stephanopoulos identifies seven must-win McCain states -- and Obama is up or tied in all of them.

Also in the news:

The one line from the campaign Obama wants back? Bittergate, he tells Matt Bai in the forthcoming New York Times Magazine. "That was my biggest boneheaded move," Obama says. "How it was interpreted in the press was Obama talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters. And I was actually making the reverse point, clumsily, which is that these voters have a right to be frustrated because they've been ignored. And because Democrats haven't met them halfway on cultural issues, we've not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition."

Out of range? "Early in 2007, just as her husband launched his presidential bid, Cindy McCain sought to resolve an old problem -- the lack of cellphone coverage on her remote 15-acre ranch near Sedona, Ariz., nestled deep in a tree-lined canyon called Hidden Valley," James V. Grimaldi reports in The Washington Post. "Ethics lawyers said Cindy McCain's dealings with the wireless companies stand out because her husband, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is a senior member of the Senate commerce committee, which oversees the Federal Communications Commission and the telecommunications industry. He has been a leading advocate for industry-backed legislation, fighting regulations and taxes on telecommunication services."

The real national pastime, greener than outfield grass: "Major League Baseball agreed Wednesday to push back the start time of Game 6 of the World Series by about 15 minutes so that Fox Broadcasting Co. could sell Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama a half-hour of prime time on Wednesday, Oct. 29," Meg James reports for the Los Angeles Times.

Looking ahead: "Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign is making plans for what it hopes will be an Election Night celebration outdoors in Chicago," John McCormick reports in the Chicago Tribune. "Aides say plans are still fluid and a specific venue has yet to be nailed down, but Millennium Park or Grant Park are distinct possibilities."

The testimony that may be worth a Senate seat: "The criminal trial of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) will boil down to a family affair today, as the Senator and his wife are scheduled to testify as the last two witnesses called in his defense," Roll Call's Paul Singer reports.

How many House members could get away with calling his constituents racists? "There's no question Western Pennsylvania is a racist area," Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., tells the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "The older population is more hesitant."

How many county GOP chairmen have caught themselves before posting something like this? "The difference between Osama and Obama is just a little B.S.," read the ad on the Sacramento County Republican Party Website. "Waterboard Barack Obama."

Sad news: "Dallas lawyer and Democratic Party fundraiser Fred Baron is dying of cancer -- and fighting a drug company for use of an experimental medication, according to his son, Andrew Baron," The Dallas Morning News' Jeffrey Weiss reports.

The Sked:

Barack Obama begins his Thursday in New Hampshire, attending a community event in Londonderry at 12:15 pm ET.

He then heads back to New York City for the evening to address the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria hotel.

After the speech, Obama holds a fundraising concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom -- the first ever joint concert crossing the bridge (and tunnels) between Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.

John McCain holds a rally in Downingtown, Pa. at 1 pm ET. He then heads to New York for his make-up appearance on Letterman, then does the Al Smith dinner.

Joe Biden spends the day in Los Angeles, taping appearances on Leno and "Ellen" before heading to a fundraiser.

Sarah Palin is in Maine Thursday morning, with a rally in Bangor at 10 am ET. She then heads south to North Carolina for a rally in Elon, then hosts a fundraiser in Greensboro.

Todd Palin swings through Minnesota -- with rallies in Duluth and Grand Rapids.

Michelle Obama holds a rally in Pittsburgh at 10:30 am ET.

Bill Clinton spends Thursday on the stump for Obama -- he attends a community event in Cleveland at 4 pm ET.

Meghan McCain hits the trail for her father in Massachusetts Thursday -- she holds a rally and attends a lunch in Boston at 11:30 am ET, then holds a meet-and-greet with Boston College students in Chestnut Hill at 12:30 pm ET.

The Kicker:

"John's last-minute economic plan does nothing to tackle the No. 1 job facing the middle class, and it happens to be, as Barack says, a three-letter word: jobs. J-O-B-S." -- Joe Biden.

"It seems like, and in our last rally too, and in other parts around this great Northwest, here in New Hampshire, ya just get it." -- Sarah Palin.

"That's why I didn't give any interviews yesterday -- I was muddy and wet." -- Joe Wurzelbacher, on "GMA" Thursday.

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