Jon Cummings: Why am I so bummed that the debate season is over? Please, Barack, take McCain up on his pleas for a dozen more town halls! I know, I know – these three presidential rumbles have been repetitive at times, excruciating at others. But you gotta admit, there’s a certain entertainment value in watching John McCain implode over the course of 90 minutes, again and again and again.

Joe the Plumber don't need no educationAnd I want to meet more archetypal Americans like Joe the Plumber … who suddenly finds himself the center of attention because he sits on the cusp of Obama’s under-$250,000 tax cut. Wow – I knew plumbers overcharge, but do they really make 250 large in a year? Cripes! Maybe Sarah Palin needs to replace “Joe Sixpack” with “Joe Chambord.” If there could only be one more debate, maybe McCain could lament the plight of “Cindy the Beer Distributor” who’s overburdened with employer-provided-health-care costs.

McCain obviously was trying to turn Joe the Plumber into an everyman, but he went to the well too many times and poor Joe morphed into a caricature. As did McCain, to a large extent. To his credit, he did get off the good line about how if Obama wanted to run against George Bush, “you should have run four years ago.” But where was that well-scripted line in the first debate, when it might have done McCain a shred of good?

It was the best shot McCain had in his arsenal, and he got it out of the way 15 minutes into the debate; after that he flailed about like Palin trying to shoot down Vladimir Putin from a helicopter (isn’t that the way that story went?). Veering wildly from topic to topic within a paragraph (or even a sentence), he reached his moment of greatest derangement when he concluded a response that was ostensibly about Colombian trade (that major driver of the American economy) by bringing up, within the space of 30 seconds, “talking without preconditions to Hugo Chavez,” raising taxes, and Herbert Hoover.

At least he showed some passion in that moment. Now we know why Obama double-dog-dared McCain to bring up William Ayers in a debate. McCain was clearly cowed by the recent criticisms of his rally crowds, and clearly uncomfortable discussing Ayers before an audience that wasn’t universally rabid (I mean sympathetic). So he gave a perfunctory recitation of his lame Ayers talking points, and then ludicrously mischaracterized ACORN’s influence on our political system in a way that won’t register with a single person who doesn’t slavishly follow Sean Hannity’s every utterance. Obama, meanwhile, had a quiver full of arrows and he fired them skillfully: challenging McCain to defend his descent into the gutter; mocking McCain’s devotion to Ayers as a distraction from real issues; using the words “Ayers” in a sentence with “Republicans,” “Reagan,” and “Annenberg”; offering an impressive laundry list of his actual “associations,” at least in terms of policy formation; and, finally, skewering McCain with the suggestion that “these attacks say more about your campaign than they do about me.”

McCain, meanwhile, once again harped on those town hall meetings Obama never agreed to, suggesting that Obama brought all this negativity upon himself. It’s reminiscent of the House Republicans’ excuse for killing the first bailout bill a couple weeks ago – that Nancy Pelosi offended them with a partisan speech right before the vote. And then McCain, looking vaguely teary (or was it just rheumy?), complained that John Lewis’ statement was “hurtful”! Boo frickin’ hoo! I’m quite sure many commentators will note that McCain’s expressions of “hurt” were a typical Rovian tactic, to turn his own weakness (the nastiness of McCain/Palin audiences) against his opponent; as for myself, I’ll just ask, When did Republicans become such whiny bitches?

Apart from his well-rehearsed rejoinder on the Ayers “issue,” Obama largely stuck to the playbook: stay calm, speak in professorial (but not too professorial) detail, and say the words “middle class” as frequently as possible. As McCain launched broadside after broadside to little effect, Obama deflected the attacks with an unflappable demeanor and a litany of policy prescriptions that showed his seriousness about solving problems.

Did Obama sit on his lead a bit? Probably. Did he need to do anything else? Nope. And did McCain send the last independent women in America flocking into the Obama camp with his repeated use of air quotes to accompany his discussion of the “health” exception to abortion restrictions? You betcha!

So where does McCain go from here, having (probably) failed to move the needle in his last appearance before a huge television audience before his (probable) concession speech on Nov. 4? McCain telegraphed in this debate that he wants to shift his focus over the last three weeks to a traditional Republican, low-tax-and-don’t-spend argument. He’s welcome to do that – if nothing else, it might ensure that he holds his base – but there are two problems with the strategy. First, the Republican base is nowhere near big enough these days to win an election. Second, the American people have just watched their government – their Republican government, with John McCain’s support – commit to bailout and rescue packages totaling (so far) more than $2 trillion. What possible resonance can “we’ve got to cut spending, and I know how to do it” have right now with the vast majority of the electorate?

There goes McCain, palling around with terrorists againMcCain no doubt will continue to amp up the rhetoric and the frenetic energy of his speeches, in an attempt to close the enthusiasm gap between his supporters and Obama’s. Obama needs to be careful not to coast too much over the next 20 days – he needs to keep the choices stark, the crowds big, and the TV saturated with ads. If he can do all those things without making any major rhetorical errors, he should be able to turn a still-considerable lead over to his vaunted ground game on Nov. 4.

Obama, unlike McCain, has one more opportunity to appeal to the vast electorate directly via television – his multi-network, half-hour ad buy on Oct. 29. The Fox network announced tonight that it will push back a World Series game in order to take Obama’s money and join the party. Such a move is a no-brainer when the Series in question promises to be as low-rated as the impending Phillies-Rays matchup; would Fox have pushed back Dodgers-Red Sox for the same purpose? I guess we’ll never know.

Dw. Dunphy: Bob Schieffer said the nicest thing I’ve heard all day: “This concludes the final debate.” Hallelujah!

Like that long-distance runner who’s just a mile from the finish line, the cramps in the legs are easing, the nasty, boiled salt of sweat no longer tastes so sour, and a solid conclusion is in sight. From here it’s a couple of weeks, a lever pull, and an assured, prolonged recount situation, and this two-year election cycle will finally be done. I might just break my diet and eat a whole pizza in celebration.

“But Dunph’,” you may ask, “what about the debate?” Well, what about it? Talking points galore; endless volleys of “you did,” “you didn’t,” “you did”; and a clarion call for insane doses of fact checking all indicate what occurred during this entire debate process. If you caught any of the earlier ones, trust me: Hofstra University was a rerun.

But let me make this perfectly clear: Bob Schieffer walked away from tonight’s debate standing pretty tall. He got it right, mostly – except for the climate change/climate control flub — by moderating the thing like Face The Nation, not like a Presidential Debate. He let Senators Obama and McCain go past their allotted time without raising too much of a stink. And why did he do that? Because they were going to do that anyway, so why get in the way? That’s why the man’s a pro; you’d think the previous moderator, Tom Brokaw, would have known these things as well.

I’m still not saying much about the debate, and for that I apologize. It was mentioned in the pre-event commentary that John McCain had only two ways to go – he could rise above, and come off as a statesman; or he could rip it like a bunny in the bulldog’s jaws, which is not too far from what occurred. The polls have been skewing heavily toward Obama lately, almost like a scale; as the Dow Jones dips lower and lower, his polling numbers go higher and higher. The perception of Republican failure has leached into the money well, and with each successive dip, change becomes more delineated.

Worst of all, there’s not a damn thing McCain can do about it. By dint of being a Republican for the last eight years, he bears the burden of those Republican failures. He can co-opt the change concept all he wants, and scribe the word “Maverick” into the breast pocket of his suit jacket, but it’s still out of his hands — and he hates that. That hate showed tonight as he rattled and prattled, tossed his digs, hammered his rhetorical nails in sideways, and scribbled feverishly onto his pad with his Sharpie. The American economy is in jeopardy because America no longer has the primary control over it. The Asian markets are a major driver now, and, as much as he wants to bring the death blow down on Barack Obama, he is actually running against them, not him. For such a proud POW as McCain justly is, that has to be particularly galling.

But let’s not forget that Barack Obama is in the same position. Had the credit logjam not occurred, prompting the bailout proposal; had McCain been able to drive that goodwill train forward on the announcement of Sarah Palin as his running mate; had Obama’s decision to overlook Hillary stuck harder, tonight would have been much different, and he knows it. He is the beneficiary of incredible fortune because the U.S. is in such dire misfortune. He now personifies change — not as a logo or metaphor or tagline, but as the embodiment of something not the current state. All he needs to do is attempt to stay calm and rational and, whenever necessary, defend himself precisely as his opponent whirls around in desperation. The Ayers inferences are clearly desperation, as is this new, snippy attitude. Obama handled them fairly well, but there were several moments where, undeniably, he was biting that tongue hard.

And it still is out of the candidates’ hands. The prime asset any politician has is the ability to spin his lemons into tasty lemonade, to seize any situation and twist it to his advantage — in short, to control. For now, both McCain and Obama are caught in a wake created by something bigger than themselves. The person who wins this election will be the one who rides the tide, not the one who gets sucked in by the undertow. The power is in neither man’s hands. All the talking points in the world can’t alter that now.