McCain's Best Debate, but Obama Still Won

George Stephanopoulos grades Obama, McCain's final presidential debate.

ByABC News
October 15, 2008, 6:20 PM

Oct. 15, 2008 — -- John McCain and Barack Obama squared off in their third and final presidential debate Wednesday night at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

During a fast-paced, spirited, and sometimes heated debate, McCain had his best debate, but Obama still won.

WINNER: Obama Won, But McCain Had His Best Debate

STRATEGY:Obama: AMcCain: A

STYLE:Obama: AMcCain: A-

ACCURACY:Obama: B McCain: B

During the debate, McCain put Obama on the defensive, raised questions about Obama's ties to former 1960s radical William Ayers, and spoke directly to Ohio voter Joe Wurzelbacher, a plumber, who had pressed Obama on his tax plan.

The fact that McCain was able to make Wurzelbacher a character in this debate is why this was his best debate.

Wurzelbacher asked Obama Sunday about his tax plan, explaining that he is getting ready to buy a company that makes $250,000 to $280,000 a year, and Obama has said he would raise taxes on people who earn more than $250,000.

"Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?" Wurzelbacher asked Obama.

During the debate McCain was able to pounce on this and ask why Obama would want to raise taxes on anyone in this economic climate. It's an argument we may be hearing a lot of over the next few weeks.

"Of course I?ve talked to people like Joe The Plumber ... Now my old buddy Joe, Joe the plumbers out there ... Hey Joe you?re rich congratulations!" McCain said, talking directly to Wurzelbacher at several points during the debate to make his point.

McCain was able to set the agenda on a lot of issues, like taxes, and especially with Wurzelbacher.

We may also see the McCain campaign use Wurzelbacher in campaign ads in the coming days.

However, Obama did not get ruffled. He handled McCain's attacks extremely well. He was cool, he remained calm, and he did a good job of explained his positions, especially when he looked directly at the camera and said, "My health care plan will not fine you" -- a charge that the McCain campaign has been leveling against Obama.

Obama did well explaining away McCain's attacks on the economy, on heathcare and on education and connecting with voters back home.

During the debate McCain attempted to distance himself from President George W. Bush, who suffers from a record low, 73 percent disapproval rating.

"Senator Obama, I am not President George Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago," McCain said.

However that is something the Republican senator should have done during the first debate and each subsequent debate, instead of waiting until the final debate to make that crucial point.

In terms of style, Obama won the battle of the televised split screens. McCain had several reaction shots during the debate where he rolled his eyes, seemed exasperated with Obama, and on the edge of anger.

On the other hand, Obama remained cool under pressure, smiling through the attacks. That's the demeanor Obama's had throughout the three debates that has served him well.

Ultimately, McCain didn't do enough to stop people from voting for Obama. Over the course of three debate the Obama campaign met their goal of reassuring the American people that he's ready to serve as president.

One of McCain's worst moments during the debate was when Obama was calling for more civility during the campaign, but McCain brought up Obama's connection to former 1960s radical William Ayers.

"We need to disagree without being disagreeable," Obama said. But McCain argued, "We need to know the full extent of that relationship [with Ayers]."

Many organizations that conducted instant dial polls during the debate found that when McCain brought up Ayers on his own without being prompted, voters' dials went south very, very quickly.

It was a tactical mistake. McCain is already seen by many voters as going negative during the campaign.

McCain misstated Obama's position on health care when he claimed people like Wurzelbacher and small businesses would be fined under Obama's health care plan. That's not true.

McCain also misstated how Obama's tax plan would affect small businesses.

But Obama was wrong when he said all of McCain's television ads have been negative. That's not true. Obama also underplayed his connection to the community organizing group Acorn.

Ultimately, McCain didn't do enough to stop people from voting for Obama. Over the course of three debate the Obama campaign met their goal of reassuring the American people that he's ready to serve as president.

The only thing that McCain could have done tonight to change the tenor of this campaign was to get under Obama's skin or force him into making an error but that did not happen.

Obama has won every presidential debate he's had with McCain by staying cool under pressure.

Polls suggest Democratic and undecided voters have come away from these debates saying they are more reassured about Obama after the debates.

If the election were held today, Obama would win more than 300 electoral votes. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to take the White House.

Obama may look back on these three debates and say it was where he sealed the deal.

However there are still two and a half weeks left of the campaign -- and anything can happen in politics.