Was it the Long Island slugfest -- or the Long Island soliloquy?
The third and final presidential debate, tonight at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., turned out to be a little of both.
The tenor of the 90-minute debate turned on John McCain. Falling further behind in the polls, he at times went aggressively after Democrat Barack Obama, including on character, and stoked a series of back-and-forth verbal punches.
At other points, the face-off was another rather sedate series of speeches recititing policy points and differences -- just what Obama might prefer as he runs out the clock until Nov. 4.
The debate set-up served as an impediment: the candidates were seated at a table with moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS, and in past debates with candidates sitting, they appeared less comfortable confronting each other.
Schieffer's first question was, no surprise, about the financial crisis after another nosedive on Wall Street today.
McCain promoted his plan for the government to spend $300 billion to directly buy distressed mortgages to stabilize the housing market, which he said is at the heart of the crisis.
Obama said his $60 billion plan, aimed at the middle class, is an important second step, beyond the $700 billion rescue plan that both he and McCain supported. "Let's focus on jobs," he said, promoting his plan to give businesses tax credits for adding jobs.
McCain said Obama would increase taxes on small businesses, citing the plight of "Joe the plumber" in Ohio. The Republican said that Obama told the plumber, "We need to spread the wealth around."
Obama responded that tax policy is a major difference because McCain wants to cut the corporate income tax rate. Under his plan, Obama said, anyone with an income of less than $250,000 a year will not pay a penny more.
The next big area was the national deficit, which is projected to reach a record $455 billion this year. With the growing debt, Schieffer asked which proposals the candidates would delay or give up.
Obama said he supports pay-as-you-go, so all of his proposals are matched by spending cuts. But he said the country needs to invest in healthcare, energy, and education to save more money later, though he acknowledged the government has been too free-spending.
McCain repeated that he supports a spending freeze, except for the military and veterans care. Responding to Obama's criticism that such a freeze would be a hatchet, McCain said, "That's a hatchet, then I'd get a scalpel."
He said he would veto pork barrel projects and seek a line-item veto.
The first big moment of the debate came when Obama repeated his claim that McCain would mean four more years of President Bush's failed policies.
McCain retorted: "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
To McCain's accusation that he has never bucked party leaders, Obama mentioned tort reform, charter schools, and clean coal technology -- all, he said, opposed by key Democratic constituencies.
Obama gave McCain credit for standing up to Bush on torture, but said on economics, he would be more of the same.
McCain disputed that, saying that he has opposed Bush on a wide range of issues.
"I've got the scars to prove it," he said.
Asking about the negative tone of the race, Schieffer challenged the candidates to say to each other's faces the terms that have been thrown around by surrogates and ads.
McCain responded that he regretted the turn, and complained again about Representative John Lewis comparing him to George Wallace during segregation in creating a climate where threats were made during McCain campaign rallies.
McCain criticized Obama for not repudiating that remark when he has repudiated "out of bounds" remarks from the Republican side.
Obama defended himself by citing a new poll that shows that two-thirds of voters believe McCain is mostly attacking him, and only one-third say that of Obama.
Obama said while Lewis's point about controlling supporters was justified, he didn't agree with the segregation analogy.
McCain defended his supporters, saying only a small fringe element might misbehave. "I'm proud of the people who come to my rallies," he said.
When Obama complained about McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, saying that he had palled around with a terrorist, that opened the door to a question about 1970s radical William Ayers.
"We need to know the full extent of that relationship," McCain said.
McCain also said that the community activist group, ACORN, is about to perpetrate the biggest election fraud in history.
Obama laughed, then defended himself.
Saying that Ayers has become the centerpiece of McCain's campaign, Obama said he was only 8 years old when the group Ayers led bombed government buildings. The two served on a nonprofit board in the mid-1990s, but he has no role in his campaign and won't advise him in the White House, Obama said.
Obama said his campaign has nothing to do with ACORN's voter registration drive. He did represent the group
Saying that McCain is trying to question his associates, Obama then listed his advisers on foreign and domestic policy.
The emphasis on past associates "says more about your campaign than it says about me." Obama said.
Asked what their running mates say about them, Obama said Senator Joe Biden has looked out for average Americans and the vulnerable throughout his career.
"I think he shares my core values," Obama said.
McCain said Palin is a role model to women and reformers and a "breath of fresh air" needed in Washington.
"I'm proud of her. She's united our party," he said.
Obama wouldn't say directly that Palin is qualified to be president, saying that judgment is up to the American people.
McCain said Biden is qualified to be president "in many respects," but argued that Biden has been wrong on several major foreign policy issues, including advocating for partition of Iraq.
While McCain often looked at Obama, Obama more often looked into the camera, making his pitch to voters.
McCain mocked Obama's eloquence, saying that voters need to carefully listen to his words. He cited Obama saying he would look at more offshore oil drilling, arguing that drilling can happen now.
He also bashed Obama for opposing free trade with Colombia, saying the country is helping the US on illegal drugs and Obama might understand that if he visited.
Obama replied that he understands well enough, saying that he opposed the deal because labor leaders are being targeted and the deal didn't include those protections.
"We have to stand for human rights," he said.
They tussled over healthcare.
McCain said Obama would fine small business that don't offer coverage; Obama said that wasn't true.
Obama said McCain's plan would threaten the healthcare coverage care that workers get from employers.
On Supreme Court appointments, they both said that abortion wouldn't be a litmus test, but both strongly suggested that their views -- McCain is against Roe v. Wade, Obama is for it -- would be a major factor in their choice.
McCain criticized Obama for voting "present" on a bill that would have required emergency care for fetuses born alive during abortion procedures.
Obama said it wasn't true, saying that the bill would have threatened Roe v. Wade and that there was already a law requiring emergency care.
McCain widened his eyes in disbelief.
Both said education needs to be dramatically improved for the country's long-term success.
Obama promoted his proposal to give students $4,000 a year in tuition aid in return for military or community service. He also faulted No Child Left Behind, the federal accountability plan, by saying the government left the money behind.
McCain promoted his proposal for greater choice for parents and more charter schools and vouchers for private schools. "Throwing money at the problem is not the answer," he said.
In his closing statement, McCain distanced himself from President Bush. "America needs a new direction," he said. "I have a record of reform." He also pledged to be a careful steward of tax money.
He ended by mentioning his and his family's long record of service in "war and in peace," saying he would "honored and humbled" to be given the opportunity again.
In his closing statement, Obama focused on the economy and the need for change.
"The biggest risk we could take right now," he said, "is to adopt the same failed policies and the same failed politics as the last eight years."
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.