HEMPSTEAD, NY -- Barack Obama never delivered a knockout punch during the final presidential debate, but it did not matter. Obama won a T.K.O. -- defeating his opponent without ever knocking him out.
John McCain hit hard and sometimes wildly, accusing Obama of links to terrorism, voter fraud and racially divisive politics. It was the first time McCain played the Ayers card in a debate, of course, after Obama had taunted McCain for failing to level the charge to Obama's "face."
The entire offensive was muddled, however, by McCain's umbrage. Asked about his running mate's false charge that Obama "palled around with terrorists," McCain offered an indignant non-sequitur. He demanded that Obama condemn Rep. John Lewis's criticism of incendiary rhetoric at GOP rallies, which McCain said was unfair because it likened his campaign to America's segregation era. "That, to me, was so hurtful," he intoned. Yet within minutes, McCain busied himself with the guilt-by-association attacks.
While McCain lurched from victim to aggressor, Obama calmly held his own. He reiterated the history of his non-alliance with Bill Ayers, noted that the board they served on also included Republicans, and broadened the conversation to economic issues and changing the tone of politics -- the familiar themes Obama has used to transcend smears throughout the general election.
The sharp exchanges that dominated the debate's opening will make for spicy soundbites, but most of the night the candidates sparred over key domestic policies. Obama touted his support for charter schools and parental responsibility in education, and drew a contrast with McCain's "hatchet" approach to freezing all federal spending on domestic programs. McCain repeatedly criticized Obama's tax and health care policies, citing the cost to the "Joe Plumbers" out there - no relation to "Joe Six Pack - and argued that his support for free trade would better renew the economy.
McCain also falsely stated that Joe Plumber would pay a fine under Obama's policies when health care is not provided to employees. In fact, Obama's plan specifically provides an exemption from that fine for small businesses. The issue has now arisen in two debates, as Obama noted in a rebuke to McCain. "As I said in our last debate, and I'll repeat John, I exempt small businesses from the requirement for large businesses that can afford to provide health care to their employees who are not doing it," he said.
Ultimately, McCain's alternating anger and umbrage never delivered the clichéd "game changer" that politicos said he needed. He punched until he was punched out. Three debates down, both men were still standing, but after scoring more in every round, Obama had the win.