By Peter S. Canellos, Globe Staff
John McCain last night put Barack Obama through an red-hot grilling, barely hiding his disdain for the Illinois senator and his outrage over Obama's policies.
Obama responded with cool, collected answers -- sometimes too cool, answering McCain's teeth-gritting attacks with a grin that seemed more amused than offended.
The difference in the senators' temperatures -- a combination of long-evident personality differences and McCain's increasing sense of urgency about Obama's growing lead in the polls -- probably stuck different voters in different ways.
But McCain's very intensity may have at least prompted some voters to take a second look at Obama and his policies.
"McCain came out swinging," said Wayne Lesperance, political scientist at New England College in New Hampshire. "Barack Obama was very cognizant of his lead and very cautious. It was reminiscent of the last round of a fight where a boxer is just trying not to be hit. If you score it on points, McCain won, but not by nearly enough to overcome Obama's lead."
McCain sought to sow doubts about Obama in many ways, some of which seemed likelier to stick than others. They included Obama's truthfulness -- "There's the eloquence," he chimed at one point, claiming Obama's support for restrictions on late-term abortions had a hidden loophole in providing exceptions for "the health of the mother." (It's a loophole, but one that's been crucial to past Supreme Court decisions and hardly hidden.)
McCain also questioned Obama's judgment ("You don't tell other countries you're going to unilaterally renegotiate," he declared about Obama's vow to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement) and personal associations, sounding like prosecutor demanding all the facts about any links between Obama's campaign and the liberal activist group ACORN, which has been accused of voter-registration fraud. (There are none, Obama said.)
While McCain often undermined his points with overstatements -- claiming, for example, that ACORN's alleged offense was "destroying the fabric of democracy" -- his clear-eyed anger at Obama was striking enough to make Obama's coolness seem overly lax. Obama almost never answered a McCain jab with one of his own, preferring to try to defang the attacks with a mild explanation of his own policy.
Obama's high-road approach seemed to bear fruit in a long discussion of negativity in the campaign, during which McCain dwelled on his own hurt feelings over Representative John Lewis accusing McCain of "sowing the seeds of hatred" by not controlling the threatening tone of some of his supporters, just like Alabama Governor George Wallace created the climate for attacks against civil rights workers in the 1960s.
Obama didn't take McCain's bait, insisting that voters want to hear more about the issues than the hurt feelings of the candidates.
But there were few other high points for Obama, despite the fact that he did his usual competent job of explaining his positions. Some of his passion seemed to have gone missing.
McCain may have taken some wind from Obama's sails early on by forcefully distancing himself from President Bush, quipping Obama was four years too late to run against Bush; McCain's line seemed to take half of Obama's playbook -- the half designed to tie McCain to Bush -- out of commission.
McCain also scored substantively by focusing on "Joe the plumber," a real person who wants to buy his business and worries that Obama's tax policies would hurt him.
Obama pointed out that Joe would have to earn more than $250,000 a year to see his taxes go up, and that Joe might have benefitted from Obama's plan during the many years he earned less.
But viewers probably were numb to the distinction: They're more likely to remember that an average Joe was worried that Obama would take his money. And McCain hammered home his point by accusing Obama of class warfare and returning to Joe later in the debate to suggest he could suffer under Obama's healthcare plan, as well.
The exchange over Joe did more than put a human focus on McCain's criticisms -- it allowed McCain to take the offensive on the tax issue. In their first two debates, Obama had all but taken the tax issue away from McCain, stressing his own plans to cut taxes for 95 percent of taxpayers and portraying McCain's plan as a giveaway to the rich.
"You're rich," McCain hollered out mockingly to Joe the plumber in one manic exchange.
McCain's performance wasn't friendly or gracious; but it may have been effective.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.