Seated just inches apart and staring each other in the eye, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain exchanged the sharpest barbs of the campaign, but when it was over McCain had failed to deliver a knockout blow.
The debate was possibly McCain's last chance to alter the course of a race that shows him sliding dangerously behind Obama in the polls, and McCain came out swinging, assailing Obama over his economic plan, his truthfulness and his character.
"You didn't tell the American people the truth," McCain charged at one point in the debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., referring to Obama's decision to forego public financing of his campaign after earlier suggesting he planned to opt into it.
Obama, however, rarely took the bait, generally appearing to remain poised and self-assured.
"He really didn't land a knockout blow on Barack Obama," ABC News' chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos told "Good Morning America."
McCain started out strong in the final debate of the long presidential campaign, Stephanopoulos said but the turning point was the "tone" of the debate as McCain stayed on the offensive against Obama.
Obama also won the "battle of the split screens," Stephanopoulos said.
"Whenever he was getting attacked by John McCain, [Obama] tended to shake his head, smile, look unruffled. John McCain on the other hand when Barack Obama was talking would sometimes roll his eyes, get agitated over the course of it and a little angry," Stephanopoulos told "GMA."
The Obama camp launched a new ad just hours after the debate concluded, using footage from the showdown to highlight Obama's contention that McCain voted to back President Bush's policies more than 90 percent of the time.
The Democrat even felt compelled to warn his supporters at a New York fundraiser today to avoid getting overconfident.
"For those of you who are feeling giddy or cocky or think this is all set, I just have two words for you: New Hampshire," Obama said.
Obama was expected to win the New Hampshire primary, but lost in an upset to Sen. Hillary Clinton.
McCain will try to capitalize on the debate with an appearance tonight on "The Late Show with David Letterman".
With the last debate out of the way, the campaigns will now concentrate on winning the battleground states over the remaining 19 days, and McCain appears to be at a severe disadvantage.
"Barack Obama has a huge advantage in the final weeks. He's outspending McCain 2 to 1 on television, 3 or 4 to 1 in battleground states," Stephanopoulos told "GMA."
Obama also appears to have an edge in the polls in crucial states.
"There are seven must win states for McCain, including Ohio, Florida, Missouri, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia, and North Carolina," Stephanopoulos said. "McCain has to win every single one of those states to eek out a narrow electoral college victory, unless there's a massive shift in the race. Right now Obama is ahead or at the least tied in every single one of McCain's seven must-win states."
Though much of the debate focused on the hardships facing average Americans, embodied in a discussion of a small business owner the candidates nicknamed "Joe the plumber," the debate was marked by spirited attacks launched by both candidates.