"Good evening everyone, and welcome to the third and final presidential debate. Our first question is for Senator John McCain. Senator, what would you do about the economic meltdown and the credit crisis?"
"Well, Bob, let me just say, first off, that I know all of America joins me in turning our thoughts tonight to one person, someone who we're all deeply concerned about in this difficult time."
"Oh, you mean Nancy Reagan? Who's in the hospital with a broken pelvis?"
"No, my friends, I mean Joe the Plumber. His name is Joe Wurtzelburger. He's out there in Toledo, Ohio, wondering how he's going to be able to buy a small business, take over the plumbing business, if Barack Obama becomes president and seizes all of his bank accounts, and redistributes all of his wealth to less fortunate plumbers."
"I see. And on the credit crisis? Your plan, Senator?"
"My friends, the markets are clogged. The entire system is stuck. The credit system is simply jammed and stuck and clogged. And at times like these, when my opponent is turning to his socialist crony terrorist friends, like Warren Buffett and Paul Volcker, my friends, that's when we need the people who are the backbone of this economy, the very foundation of what makes us a great nation, to unclog those economic pipes, and that would mean, of course, my great dear friend Joe Wigglebasket, Joe the Plumber from Ohio."
"You would put this Joe the Plumber in charge of the economy?"
"I would, Bob, and here's why. Who better to take a wrench to the rusty pipes of our economy, to the festering septic tank that is Congress, to seal our leaky borders, than my incredibly close friend, I love him like a brother, Joe Whiffenpoofer, the plumber from Ohio."
"Um...Senator, before I give Senator Obama a chance to respond, is that your entire plan to jump start the economy?"
"Did you say jump start, Bob? Then in that case, I'd also like to give a shout out to Mike the Mechanic...."
And we'll let Saturday Night Live take it from there this weekend!
Wow, just imagine the field day that Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, David Letterman et al. are going to have with this Joe the Plumber situation. Just think of the blue jeans and butt cracks that we'll be seeing in late night skits the rest of this week. And all because John McCain needed some way to connect with the American people on the economy.
Now, I have to say, I actually think Joe the Plumber was an effective device for McCain in this debate. It allowed him to put a face on the impact of Barack Obama's plan to raise taxes on the rich. It gave him a way to scare the undecided about what Obama might mean for their pocketbooks. But it would have helped if a) McCain got Joe's name right (it's Wurzelbacher, not Wurtzelburger); b) McCain had actually ever met the man he kept calling his old buddy and friend; and c) if Joe were actually a working class guy. He can afford to buy a business that makes about $280,000 a year? I think he's doing okay then. Besides, have you ever met a poor plumber? The guys who fix my pipes are making bank.
John McCain was definitely the aggressor tonight, which was no surprise at all. He still came off like your cranky neighbor, though. Instead of wandering around the stage, as he did at last week's town hall, he wandered around rhetorically, often starting an answer strong and then meandering away to some other point without ever completing the original thought. He also kept rolling his eyes during Obama's answers, which I found a bit annoying. But I thought, overall, that he performed a little better in this debate than the other two.
Obama, meanwhile, was his usual steady self, if a bit more defensive. McCain forced him to explain himself on everything from Ayers to Acorn to Abortion, but I thought Obama finessed those answers quite well. He comes off as calm and reasonable, and that, more than anything, may be why he's surged ahead of McCain in the polls. Right now, in a time of crisis, the American people seem to want calm and reasonable, not twitchy and tense. McCain's debate performances make you wonder if he's off his meds, and that's not the presidential demeanor most voters are seeking.
Still, the voter reaction to these debates baffles me a little. On substance, I thought McCain narrowly won the first one, I called the second one a draw, and I would say McCain won the first half of this debate and Obama the second half. But the polls keep showing really lopsided wins for Obama. That's rare in presidential debates; often, they are toss-ups. Our CBS News poll of 500 undecided voters gave Obama a huge win tonight, with 53% saying he clobbered McCain, 22% picking McCain as the debate winner, and 24% seeing it as a tie. The CNN poll of debate-watchers (not just undecided ones) had 58% saying Obama won, and 31% giving the nod to McCain. Those are landslide numbers. I think people are predisposed to like Obama more, and they're also turned off more and more by McCain's cantankerous nature and constant, sometimes condescending and sarcastic, needling of Obama. And the more people hear that Obama won, the more of them think he won, even if they didn't say so at first. That will reinforce the perception that Obama's won all the debates and probably add to his lead in the polls.
By the way, as I expected he would be, Bob Schieffer was terrific, learning from all the other moderators' mistakes, asking mostly excellent questions and following up effectively. Most importantly, he got out of the way and made himself pretty much invisible for nice fat chunks of the show, allowing the two Senators to engage each other directly and actually have a vigorous debate, instead of trading stump speeches.
There are 19 days, and counting, until Election Day. We'll see what the polls say in the next few days, but it doesn't appear this final debate plugged the leaks in John McCain's support. He's already abandoned ship in Michigan. Now the Republican National Committee is pulling out of Wisconsin and Maine. McCain is playing a defensive game, shrinking his efforts to snatch a state from the Democratic column to just Pennsylvania, where he's falling far behind, and New Hampshire, where he still has a chance. He's retrenching, concentrating his resources on holding on to the Bush states from 2004, namely Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. He's close to writing off Iowa. And Obama's actually winning now in almost all of those states. The latest poll I just saw from Virginia has Obama up by ten points there, which is simply astounding.
As Bob Dylan famously sang, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. William Ayers and his friends liked that line so much they named the Weather Underground after it. After this debate, you don't need a plumber to see that John McCain's campaign is circling the drain, and if he doesn't find the stopper...really soon...even old Joe What's-his-name won't be able to rescue him.
(To hear our story about Joe the Plumber (yes, including an interview with him!), about the debate in general, or to hear the other interviews we did afterwards, please click here. To see the latest polls (the national numbers and some state-by-state polls), please click here.)