Tonight was the fourth and final debate of this electoral season (third between the presidential contenders), and McCain went into it a very long way from victory. In a campaign where those fond of sports metaphors have accused him of throwing too many “hail Mary” passes already, tonight was his last chance.

He still didn’t score.

Enough of that, though; frankly I hate sports metaphors. Politics isn’t a game, and tonight’s debate certainly wasn’t particularly entertaining.

The fact is, the most impressive thing about the evening was probably moderator Bob Schieffer, who asked serious, intelligent, evenhanded, pertinent questions (aside from sharing every moderator’s odd obsession with the idea that a recession calls for reduced federal spending), and did his best to keep the candidates on topic.

McCain, on the other hand, mainly came across as a bit creepy. His eyes were dilated and too wide open, except when he was blinking rapidly. He wore weird smirks and grimaces at inappropriate moments. He sat uncomfortably straight in his chair. Overall, he looked almost as if he had been drugged.

His verbal performance wasn’t much better. Evidently he’d drilled himself on the idea that American voters are “hurting and angry,” since he told us that, what, five times? I’d like to think there are other emotions provoked by the current economic situation, too (confusion, perhaps? disappointment? mutual compassion?), but anger is apparently what McCain understand best.

Among other bizarre remarks throughout the evening, he also let us know that

  • “You don’t want to spread the wealth” in America. Apparently the idea of shared sacrifice and mutual prosperity is now un-American, at least where taxes are concerned.
  • Sarah Palin is “a role model for women.” Come again? Seriously?
  • Small businesses pay fifty percent of our small business taxes. Huh?
  • Wanting nuclear plants to be “safe” is only a concern for “extreme” environmentalists.
  • Colombia is our largest agricultural importer. Say what? Colombia? What?
  • Speaking of Colombia, he actually rolled his eyes at the mention of labor organizers there being assassinated.
  • He can’t tell the difference between autism and Downs Syndrome.
  • Organ transplants are elective procedures akin to cosmetic surgery.
  • If you like the idea of single-payer health coverage (not that Obama has actually proposed it), “you’ll love Canada and England!” (Umm, yeah, okay. Why not? Did they turn into disease-ridden cesspools when I wasn’t looking? Where health care is concerned, last I heard they both had lower costs and higher patient satisfaction than the United States.)

Overall, while “erratic” is a word that has perhaps been overused lately about McCain, it definitely applied tonight. More than once I had to stop and ask myself, “did he really just say that?” (Bringing up “Joe the plumber” was certainly an odd choice, for instance, since anyone who’s seen that video clip knows how deftly and persuasively Obama handled the fellow’s questions.) I’ll give McCain credit for opposing ethanol subsidies—the one clear policy point he made with which I genuinely agree. Other than that, though, he really wasn’t impressive. His main concern seemed to be trying to convince the audience (over and over again) that Obama would raise their taxes, despite clear and obvious information to the contrary.

In all fairness, Obama wasn’t at his best tonight, either. He seemed a bit tired, and despite Schieffer’s efforts to break new ground he mostly only repeated now-familiar talking points. On the subject of “personal attacks” he defended himself well from McCain’s cheap shots about Bill Ayers and ACORN… although he could have pointed out that far from McCain’s overwrought allegation that some fake voter registrations constitute “one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy,” in fact (A) ACORN has complied with the laws and cooperated with state and local authorities to help weed out any fake registrations, (B) a Republican-led investigation (.pdf) into similar allegations in 2004 turned up virtually no evidence of actual voter fraud, and (C) GOP-driven lawsuits and other machinations right now are threatening to undermine democracy far more by disenfranchising countless thousands of legitimate voters. McCain shouldn’t be allowed to poison the well of public trust in advance by casting doubt on the legitimacy of Obama’s looming victory.

I was also astonished, but impressed, that Obama resisted the urge to counterpunch in the guilt-by-association game by pointing out that McCain’s own choice to head his transition team is a K Street professional who lobbied for Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Unfortunately, that self-control only led McCain to attack him again later, forcing Obama onto the defensive about his abortion-related votes in the Illinois Senate… although that exchange did offer us the subsequent spectacle of McCain making dismissive air quotes about women’s “health,” which surely didn’t win him any new friends outside the wingnut base.

In the end, Obama still came out of the night looking good. If it wasn’t his best showing, it was still head and shoulders above McCain’s. He presented himself as intelligent, thoughtful, and serious about solving our country’s ever-multiplying problems. He spoke of—and practiced—the ability to disagree without being disagreeable, something McCain clearly hasn’t mastered. By focusing on substance rather than on scoring points, he scored exactly the kind of points voters are really looking for in this high-stakes political season.

Coda: Once again the general public comes to the same conclusion. Snap polls from both CNN (58-31) and CBS (53-22, “uncommitted” voters only) show Obama as the decisive winner yet again, making it a clean sweep of all four debates for the Democratic ticket. (The only two categories McCain won in CNN’s poll: “more time on the attack” and “more like a typical politician.”) There may be something of a bandwagon effect going on by this point—McCain’s campaign practically oozes desperation, and a lot of people like to vote for winners—but whatever the motivations, if they increase the margins on November 4th, I’m not complaining.

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