Debate, round three

After participating in two presidential debates that were largely a mix and match of stump speeches and campaign talking points, the major party candidates had one final opportunity to directly argue their case Wednesday. The performance was an astounding success, owed in no small part to the pointed questions and light hand of moderator Bob Schieffer. After 23 minutes of the familiar back and forth accompanied by an insipid pastoral vamp over âÄúJoe the Plumber,âÄù Schieffer challenged both candidates to âÄúsay to each otherâÄôs face what your campaigns âĦ have saidâÄù and the debate truly got underway. From that point forward, both men started playing their roles for the night: McCain on the attack, Obama playing it cool. Amid questions on policies on abortion and Supreme Court choices, McCain landed several memorable lines, saying, âÄúI am not President BushâÄù and unintentionally calling Obama âÄúSenator Government,âÄù much to the amusement of the crowd. Yet the most revealing part of the debate belonged to Obama. The past few weeks has seen what may be considered the defeat of the McCain campaign, and a condensed version of that drama played out 59 minutes into the debate. While being prodded about the fine his health care plan would levy for noncompliance, Obama looked at the camera with a wry smirk and said, âÄúHereâÄôs your fine: zero. You wonâÄôt pay a fine,âÄù to which a visibly flabbergasted McCain asked in disbelief, âÄúzero?âÄù As Obama continued, McCainâÄôs face was the essence of shock: mouth agape, features frozen. As has so often been the case lately, McCain was caught by surprise. Although rich in policy details, the thought occurs that rather than illustrating a difference in opinion, this debate may foreshadow the next two weeks: a slow swagger by Obama past his befuddled opponent.