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Candidates Spar Over Policies, Negative Campaign

Candidates Spar Over Policies, Negative Campaign
Photo Gallery: The Final Presidential Debate
The two candidates sparred over foreign policy, the economy and negative campaign advertising.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
The two candidates sparred over foreign policy, the economy and negative campaign advertising.

The final debate of the 2008 campaign featured some of the sharpest exchanges to date between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain. The tension between the two was heightened by the fact that for the first time in this debate season, the two men were seated right next to each other.

Wednesday night's debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., focused primarily on domestic issues, and not surprisingly, the discussion turned immediately to the economy. In his first question, moderater Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked the two candidates to compare their plans for solving the economic crisis.

McCain defended his plan to buy up $300 billion worth of bad mortgages, and he criticized Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson for not taking this step. Obama said he wanted to focus his efforts on assistance to the middle class and quickly outlined his plans to create more jobs and cut taxes.

McCain accused Obama of relying on "class warfare" and asked Obama why he would want to raise taxes at a time of economic distress. Obama insisted he is planning to raise taxes only for the richest Americans. Obama's tax plan would be better for the bottom 80 percent of Americans by income. McCain's would favor the top 20 percent of Americans by income. Obama said some Americans, such as investor Warren Buffett, could afford to pay a little more to finance a middle-class tax cut.

The 90-minute debate began at 9 p.m. Eastern, just a few hours after the Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 700 points, nearly wiping out a record gain on Monday.

Abortion And Judicial Nominees

The two candidates had what may be their longest exchange about the issue of abortion. They differed clearly in their answers to a question about whether they would apply a "litmus test" to Supreme Court nominees on whether they support the right to an abortion.

McCain said that while he opposed the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade, he would not apply a litmus test to nominees. But he said he believed the states should be allowed to decide abortion issues.

Obama said that the right to an abortion should no more be open to states' interpretation then any other right, such as freedom of speech. He insisted that only a woman and her doctor should decide whether to choose abortion.

Sparring Over The Bush Legacy

McCain tried several times to seize the initiative and spoke directly to Obama. When Obama said that the Bush administration was responsible for the current budget deficit, McCain turned to him and said, "Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."

Obama linked McCain to President Bush over and over, saying that his Republican rival had backed the administration's economic policies.

But McCain underscored his maverick status, saying he has the scars to prove that he has fought the president's policies when he felt it was important. McCain said he had opposed the administration by emphasizing the need to fight global warming and that he had fought the use of torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists.

Courting 'Joe The Plumber'

On health care, the two went over some familiar ground. McCain accused Obama of planning to fine any business that does not provide health care to its employees. Obama reassured "Joe the Plumber" that small businesses would be exempt from such requirements. The two argued throughout the debate over whether "Joe" would be better off under an Obama or a McCain administration.

"Joe" is, in fact, Joe Wurzelbacher, who is trying to buy a plumbing business in Toledo, Ohio. Several days ago, Wurzelbacher told Obama that the Democrat's tax plan would keep him from buying that business. Throughout the debate, "Joe" came to symbolize average Americans trying to run a business.

The two candidates' positions on education are not that far apart, but during the debate they sought to emphasize their differences on a topic that has largely dropped out of the campaign.

Obama said education was key to the country's economic future and outlined plans to give college students a $4,000 tuition tax credit. Obama also said that spending more on early childhood education would save money in the long run by producing higher student achievement. Obama also complained that No Child Left Behind was a good idea that was underfunded. He said the federal government needs to step up with more funding for education.

McCain said that throwing money at the problem was not the solution. He said the answer for low-income parents was to give them the ability to choose another school if their local school was failing. McCain said that districts that have offered more choice have shown success and that charter schools offer an important alternative to failing public schools. Obama said that he, too, has been a supporter of charters.

The Negativity Blame Game

The two traded shots over who was responsible for the negative tone of the campaign. McCain accused Obama of spending more on negative ads than any candidate in history. He also denounced as "hurtful" remarks made by Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights leader who compared some tactics of McCain supporters to those used by segregationist George Wallace.

Obama said he had distanced himself from Lewis' comments. And he charged that every ad McCain had run in recent weeks was negative. According to the Wisconsin Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, "nearly 100 percent" of the ads that McCain ran in the week of Sept. 28 to Oct. 4 were negative. Obama's ads in that week were 34 percent negative.

However, McCain was correct in saying that Obama has spent more on negative ads than he has. What McCain did not note is that Obama has spent more overall, since the Democrat opted out of the public financing system and can therefore raise unlimited amounts of funds.

McCain also defended one of the more controversial charges that he has raised about Obama: McCain said Obama's relationship with William Ayers deserves to be investigated. Ayers is a college professor who has admitted to bombing the Pentagon while a member of the Weather Underground in the 1960s. He has served on a community board in Chicago with Obama.

Obama tried to explain that he had only a distant association with Ayers, whose involvement with the Weather Underground dated back to when Obama was 8 years old. Obama said he would rather be known for his associations with leading military leaders and others who, he said, would serve as his advisers if he wins the White House.

McCain was under intense pressure to use the debate as a springboard to overcome Obama's lead. A Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll released Tuesday showed Obama with a 6-point advantage, while a Washington Post-ABC News poll from Monday showed him with a 10-point lead among likely voters.

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