HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - John McCain told Barack Obama to his face Wednesday night, "You didn't tell the American people the truth" about a key campaign pledge as the two presidential rivals slung accusations at close quarters in the final debate of their campaign for the White House.
Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (L) faces Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) during their presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York October 15, 2008. Moderator Bob Schieffer is at center. [Agencies]
"One hundred percent, John, of your ads, 100 percent of them have been negative," Obama shot back a few moments later to his rival, seated only a few feet away at a round table.
"That's not true," McCain retorted.
"It is true," said Obama, seeking the last word.
McCain is currently running all negative ads, according to a study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But he has run a number of positive ads during the campaign.
Behind in the polls, McCain played the aggressor early and often.
He demanded to know the full extent of Obama's relationship with William Ayers, a 1960s-era terrorist, the Democrat's ties with ACORN, a liberal group accused of violating federal law as it seeks to register voters, and insisted Obama disavow last week's remarks by Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat, who accused the Republican ticket of playing racial politics along the same lines as segregationists of the past.
Struggling to escape the political drag of an unpopular Republican incumbent, McCain also said, "Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush. ... You wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
Obama returned each volley, and brushed aside McCain's claim to full political independence.
"If I've occasionally mistaken your policies for George Bush's policies, it's because on the core economic issues that matter to the American people — on tax policy, on energy policy, on spending priorities — you have been a vigorous supporter of President Bush," he said.
McCain's allegation that Obama had not leveled with the public involved the Democrat's decision to forgo public financing for his campaign in favor of raising his own funds. As a result, he has far outraised McCain, although the difference has been somewhat neutralized by an advantage the Republican National Committee holds over the Democratic Party.
"He signed a piece of paper" earlier in the campaign pledging to accept federal financing, McCain said. He added that Obama's campaign has spent more money than any since Watergate, a reference to President Nixon's re-election, a campaign that later became synonymous with scandal.
Obama made no immediate response to McCain's assertion about having signed a pledge to accept federal campaign funds.
Asked about running mates, both presidential candidates said Democrat Joseph Biden was qualified to become president, although McCain qualified his judgment by adding the words "in many respects."
McCain passed up a chance to say his own running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was qualified to sit in the Oval Office, though he praised her performance as governor. Obama sidestepped when asked, saying it was up to the voters to decide.
McCain used the opening moments of the debate to accuse Obama of waging class warfare by advocating tax increases designed to "spread the wealth around." The Democrat denied it, and countered that he favors tax reductions for 95 percent of all Americans.
"Nobody likes taxes," Obama said in an exchange early in the third and final debate of a campaign nearing its end. "But ultimately we've got to pay for the core investments" necessary for the economy.
"If nobody likes taxes, let's not raise anybody's, OK?" McCain retorted with a laugh.
McCain's allegation stemmed from one of Obama's campaign appearances last weekend.
In Ohio on Sunday, Obama was approached by one man who said, "Your new tax plan's going to tax me more."
A video clip caught by Fox News shows Obama replying, "It's not that I want to punish your success. I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they've got a chance at success, too. And I think that when we spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."
McCain referred repeatedly to that voter, Joe Wurzelbacher, a plumber from Toledo, Ohio.
Wurzelbacher watched Wednesday night's debate and said he still thinks Obama's plan would keep him from buying the small business that employs him.
About McCain: "He's got it right as far as I go."
Even so, Wurzelbacher declined to say who was getting his vote.
He said he was surprised that he was called "Joe the Plumber" repeatedly during the debate.
"It's pretty surreal, man, my name being mentioned in a presidential campaign."