HOFSTRA UNIVERSITY, NY - Republican candidate John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama slugged it out over the faltering U.S. economy, taxes, energy policy and health care in their third and final presidential debate on Wednesday night.
The encounter began with an exchange on the economy. Both men said the $700 billion bailout was not enough. McCain said Americans are hurting and they're angry. He said they are the innocent victims of greed on Wall Street. McCain said, "We've got to put the homeowners first."
Obama said what the nation hasn't seen yet is a rescue plan for the middle class. He said the top focus should be on jobs. As the debate unfolded, McCain accused Obama of waging class warfare by advocating tax increases designed to "spread the wealth around." The Democrat denied it, and countered that he favors tax reductions for 95 percent of all Americans.
"Nobody likes taxes," Obama said in an exchange early in the third and final presidential debate of a campaign nearing its end. "But ultimately we've got to pay for the core investments" necessary for the economy.
"If nobody likes taxes, let's not raise anybody's, OK?" McCain retorted with a laugh.
The 90-minute debate at Hofstra University focused on the economy and domestic policy. The candidates were seated at a table with moderator Bob Schieffer, CBS News' Chief Washington correspondent.
McCain, eager to stress his differences with an unpopular president, also said he was disappointed that the Bush administration has not embraced his $300 billion proposal to renegotiate mortgagees so homeowners can remain in their homes.
"Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush," he declared at another point. "If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
Obama said he agreed the government must help homeowners trapped in the current economic crisis, but he said, "The way Sen. McCain has designed his plan, it could be a giveaway to banks."
The two men also traded charges that departed from the core issues of the economy, energy and taxes.
"One hundred percent, John, of your ads, 100 percent of them have been negative," Obama told his rival, seated only a few feet away at a round table.
"That's not true," McCain retorted.
"It is true," said Obama, seeking the last word.
McCain is currently running all negative ads, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But he has run a number of positive ads during the campaign.
Behind in the polls, McCain played the aggressor early and often. He demanded to know the full extent of Obama's relationship with William Ayres, a 1960s-era terrorist, the Democrat's ties with ACORN, a liberal group accused of violating federal law as it seeks to register voters, and insisted Obama disavow last week's remarks by Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat, who accused the Republican ticket of playing racial politics along the same lines as segregationists of the past.
Obama returned each volley, and brushed aside McCain's claim to full political independence.
"If I've occasionally mistaken your policies for George Bush's policies, it's because on the core economic issues that matter to the American people - on tax policy, on energy policy, on spending priorities - you have been a vigorous supporter of President Bush," he said.
Asked about running mates, both presidential candidates said Democrat Joseph Biden was qualified to become president, although McCain qualified his judgment by adding the words "in many respects."
McCain passed up a chance to say his own running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was qualified to sit in the Oval Office, though he praised her performance as governor. Obama sidestepped when asked, saying it was up to the voters to decide.
Obama entered the debate with a wide lead over McCain nationally, a new CBS News/New York Times poll shows. The Obama-Biden ticket now leads the McCain-Palin ticket 53 percent to 39 percent among likely voters, a 14-point margin, according to the poll.
“All eyes will be on John McCain, who has a massive challenge ahead of him in this final debate,” said CBSNews.com senior political editor Vaughn Ververs. “He needs to find some way to shake this race up, to get those independent and undecided voters to give him one more look.”