HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — John McCain and Barack Obama clashed sharply in their third and last presidential debate, as McCain tried to paint his rival as insensitive to "Joe the Plumber" and too willing to associate himself with unsavory influences, while Obama charged that McCain was waging an ugly, divisive campaign.
McCain, trailing well behind the Democratic nominee in most national polls, was the aggressor, insisting that Ohio plumber Joe Wurzelbacher would pay more taxes under a President Obama. And, McCain said, Obama was reluctant to repudiate an inflammatory statement by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., or voter registration tactics of community group Acorn.
Obama fought back gently but firmly, insisting that his Republican rival was too often ignoring the nation's economic issues and running an ugly campaign.
"One hundred percent of your ads, John ... 100 percent of them have been negative," he said.
"That's not true," McCain replied. "A hundred ... it absolutely is true," Obama insisted.
McCain's recent ads have been negative; Obama has offered a mix of positive and negative.
Obama also repeatedly charged that McCain would simply continue the "failed" economic policies of President Bush. "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush," said an annoyed McCain. "If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
That comment early in the 90-minute debate at Hofstra University set the tone for the evening.
McCain recalled how Lewis, a veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement, compared the Republican campaign's tone to segregationist George Wallace, the former Alabama governor and presidential candidate. Lewis last week said he was "deeply disturbed by the negative tone of the McCain-Palin campaign. What I am seeing reminds me too much of another destructive period in American history. Senator McCain and Governor (Sarah) Palin are sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse," Lewis said.
McCain was outraged at the comments. "That to me was so hurtful," he said.
"And Senator Obama, you didn't repudiate those remarks."
In fact, Obama's campaign did repudiate Lewis's comments shortly after they were made: "Senator Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies. But John Lewis was right to condemn some of the hateful rhetoric that John McCain himself personally rebuked just last night," Obama's campaign said in a statement at the time.
In his initial response to McCain, Obama didn't repudiate Lewis, but rather recalled reports suggesting that people in campaign crowds were calling Obama a terrorist or threatening to kill him. After more prodding from McCain, Obama called Lewis' comments inappropriate, and fought back with a broader point: "The American people have become so cynical about our politics, because all they see is a tit for tat and back and forth."
McCain wouldn't let up.
"The point is that I have repudiated every time someone has been out of line, whether they've been part of my campaign or not," he said, "And I will continue to do that. But the fact is that we need to absolutely not stand for the kind of things that have been going on. I haven't."
McCain went on to other ways of trying to raise questions about Obama, citing Acorn, or Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
The group, long a target of Republican ire, helps register lower income and minority voters. It's been criticized recently for submitting false voter-registration names and is under investigation in 11 states. Obama in the 1990s represented Acorn in a lawsuit and the group has endorsed him.
"We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama's relationship with Acorn, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy," McCain said.
Obama reiterated that Acorn is not advising his campaign. Acorn's efforts, he said, "had nothing to do with us. We were not involved."
Obama was ready for questions regarding William Ayers, the Vietnam war-era radical who's been the subject of McCain campaign criticism. McCain demanded to know the full relationship between Obama and Ayers. Obama explained that their relationship was slight and insisted: "Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House. So that's Mr. Ayers."
There was much talk about the struggling economy — and that's how Wurzelbacher, a plumber Obama met recently in Toledo, Ohio, kept coming up.
"Joe wants to buy the business that he's been in for all these years. Worked 10, 12 hours a day. And he wanted to buy the business, but he looked at your tax plan and he saw that he was going to pay much higher taxes," McCain said.
McCain looked squarely at the camera. "Joe, I want to tell you ... I'll keep your taxes low and provide affordable health care for you and your employees," McCain said.
Obama tried to explain himself.
"What I essentially said to him was, five years ago, when you were in the position to buy your business, you needed a tax cut then. And what I want to do is to make sure that the plumber ... I want to give them a tax break now. And that requires us to make some important choices."
Obama said he'd cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans and raise taxes only on those making more than $250,000. In fact, he'd raise taxes on single filers making over $200,000 and couples making more than $250,000.
McCain called that "class warfare" and asked why would one raise taxes on anyone in America right now, given the weak economy.
Moderator Bob Schieffer pointed out that both the McCain and Obama plans would increase already record budget deficits.
Obama boasted that "every dollar that I've proposed, I've proposed an additional cut, so that it matches."
The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Budget has disagreed, saying that Obama's plans would increase the deficit. But it also has found that McCain's plan would not balance the budget by 2013, as the senator has pledged. MORE FROM MCCLATCHY