WASHINGTON — 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.
Obama performed as he has throughout the fall campaign — calm, steady, clear spoken, and at times elusive. He refused, for example, to say where he might cut federal spending beyond the politics-as-usual promise to go through the budget page-by-page.
A more polished debater than he was at the start of his long campaign — after three debates with McCain and more than 20 with Democratic primary rivals — he made no gaffes and did nothing to jeopardize his standing as the frontrunner.
Mindful that it was up to him to force a change in the race, McCain was by turns warm, abrupt and testy in the high stakes 90-minute debate. If he scored with some voters, he also missed several opportunities to score badly needed points.
Showing his strength in a talk show format that he knows well, McCain displayed a warm side and worked to connect his proposals to ordinary voters or familiar family life.
To illustrate his charge that Obama would raise taxes and hurt a faltering economy, for example, McCain referred repeatedly to an Ohio plumber named Joe who recently confronted Obama on the campaign trail.
Talking about abortion and adoption, he noted that he and his wife, Cindy, are adoptive parents.
He also stressed his maverick nature that once endeared him to independent voters, a bloc he needs to win back from Obama, and distanced himself from President Bush.
"I am not President Bush," he said to Obama at one point. "If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
He might have added that he himself did run against Bush eight years ago — a remark that might have reminded independents of the maverick, against-the-establishment straight-talker that they used to like.
That, however, would have opened him to counter charges that he's since embraced most of Bush's polices and consistently voted with the president. It also could have paid dividends, however.
It was Obama, not McCain, who raised the fact that McCain has showed political independence, notably by opposing the torture of prisoners in the war on terror.
"I have disagreed with leaders of my own party," McCain said, adding his support for government action to curb global warming, the way the Iraq war was being waged and an HMO patients' bill of rights.
He then turned on Obama, who doesn't have a comparable record of standing up to his own party. "Your argument for standing up to the leadership of your party isn't very convincing," McCain said.
McCain, though, missed several steps, most notably when he finally got to confront Obama directly over his relationship with violent 1960s radical William Ayers and to the community group ACORN, which Republicans accuse of widespread voter registration fraud.
It was the chance that McCain apparently had been waiting for, an opportunity to tell an audience of millions of undecided voters in detail what he's been telling his supporters at boisterous rallies, that Obama's ties raise questions about his judgment.
Yet for all the buildup, McCain seemed ill at ease and poorly prepared to make his case to the television-watching jury.
"Yes, real quick. Mr. Ayers," McCain said, without telling viewers the man's full name. "I don't care about an old washed-up terrorist. But as Senator Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship."
McCain failed to explain the relationship, apparently assuming that undecided voters, like his supporters, know that Ayers was part of a group that planted bombs at the Pentagon and other government buildings to protest the Vietnam War.
It wasn't until later in the debate that McCain remembered to tell voters that Ayers has refused to apologize for the violence — then moved on quickly to the economy.
McCain also brushed past the story of the ACORN community action group, then risked undermining his own argument by hyperbolically raising the threat beyond what the evidence so far supports.
"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.
At another point, McCain again appeared to introduce ideas without explaining them to debate watchers, apparently assuming that they knew the background.
When Obama criticized him for not stopping angry comments about Obama at his rallies such as "terrorist" or "kill him," McCain took it as an assault on all his supporters, including some never mentioned in the debate.
"Whenever you get a large rally of 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 people, you're going to have some fringe peoples," McCain said.
"But to somehow say that group of young women who said, 'Military wives for McCain' are somehow saying anything derogatory about you . . . and those veterans that wear those hats that say 'World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq,' I'm not going to stand for people saying that the people that come to my rallies are anything but the most dedicated, patriotic men and women that are in this nation and they're great citizens."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY