From Robert Shrum at HuffingtonPost:
At first, Senator McCain seemed to be resentfully respectful toward the probably presidential Obama; I think McCain must have heard from the same Republican operative who said to me that in this third debate, McCain had to come across as "presidential too" -- as Obama already did in the earlier debates and in his reaction to the financial crisis. This reflects a stunning role reversal during the past month, and the dimensions of the challenge that faced McCain tonight. He had to be in command, steady and reassuring, but his partisans were urging all-out war on Obama's character. When he takes that course, and he soon did, the polls show that voters turn away. They worry a lot more right now about paying their bills than about some guy named Bill Ayres. (But that would come from McCain -- because that's all he's got. .) And McCain had to know Obama would be ready, not just to answer and dismiss the attacks, but to cite them as proof that McCain can't deal with real concerns like the economy. And he can't: he just keeps repeating his tired falsehood about Obama raising taxes on most Americans and the middle class, when in fact he cuts them and Obama wins the exchange hands down.
And oh God here comes earmarks again. McCain sounded like a wind up toy -- and Obama readily turned his metronomic attacks aside.. The beleagured heir to Bush couldn't convincingly separate himself from Bush economics. Instead the differences he cited were torture and climate change. And he violated the first rule of debate -- don't issue a challenge the other guy can meet. Obama deftly cited a range of disagreements with his own party.
McCain also sounded like an aggrieved coot who thinks this campaign is all about him. Obama nailed him cold when he reminded his opponent that it's not about the hurt the candidates may feel, but the economic hurt inflicted on the American people.
Halfway through McCain's hate emerged. He defended the extremists at his rallies. He babbled about Bill Ayers and vindicated Obama's suggestion that Ayers is the centerpiece of his campaign -- which reinforced the charge that his own aides say he can't compete on the economy. It was an ugly interlude.
It was matched by the absurdity of his incoherent defense of Sarah Palin as a plausible vice president. One of her qualifications apparently is that Todd Palin is some tough guy. And Sarah, well now that Americans have some sense of her, she has some tough poll ratings.
No one could have coached McCain to be this bad. His criticism of Obama on trade: bye, bye Ohio. His decision to talk about how he repeals the tax deduction for health coverage: McCain got squashed again. " Senator Obama voted against Justice Breyer": it was in 1994 and Obama wasn't even in the Illinois State Senate, let alone the US Senate.. And if he thinks this election is about school vochers, he really is a nitwit.
When it isn't sad, it's sinister. McCain isn't a candidate anymore, but a negative research dump-- a heedless purveyors of distortion and untruth, a man who started off running on his experince, but ends up now as a right-wing caricature stumbling toward defeat with dishonor.
For McCain, the urgent need tonight was not for McCarthyism on Ayers or ACORN ( this one will not grow into a mighty campaign oak), but for sounding empathetic, informed and authoritative on the economy -- a daunting objective for someone who unforgettably, irretrievably said he doesn't know much about economics and the "fundamentals" are sound anyway. And when he did venture a half-understood point on this issue, was fighting on what is now decidedly Obama's ground. His latest, rushed policy re-invention came just a day before the debate and with a glaring credibility gap; McCain's own staff previewed the plan as a politically driven maneuver to appeal to senior citizen in battleground states.s.
McCain had to be presidential but wasn't, maybe because he knows that's now catch-up ball for him, not a game changer.
So his real choice in the final debate -- as in the final weeks -- is between defeat with honor, or a desperate and debased resort to untrue and irrelevant attacks that will leave him both defeated and dishonored.
This performance was embarrassing. Put McCain out of his misery -- hold the election now.