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Contention Permeates Final McCain, Obama Debate

The two candidates for the presidency engaged on the economy, health care, abortion and other issues in Wednesday night's third and final debate before the election. Political analysts and historians discuss whether either senator emerged victorious.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    We have some initial reactions here, as we watch the senators greeted each other to applause. We'll get some reactions here from syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    First, the question, David, is, did McCain do what he had to do?

    DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Well, we'll wait for the verdict from Joe the plumber. I guess he'll tell us who won this debate. Everything centers on him.

    I guess I think not. I thought he landed some blows, but the underlying theme of this whole campaign, Obama mentioned it's been 20 months, has been Obama's temperament. The man is calm. The man is unflappable.

    It's like a redwood forest. You can lob some cannon balls into it, and McCain lobbed some balls into it. I thought he scored some points, but it doesn't seem to affect the forest.

    And for a country that's looking for reassurance — something change, but something presidential — Obama delivered that again.

    I think he sometimes elides tough issues and all that, but he — he doesn't change. And I think that's the fundamental source of comfort for people who are looking for a candidate.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Do you see the same thing, Mark?

    MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: I guess I do, Jim. I don't think that it was, in the parlance of this year, a game-changer that we were looking for, that John McCain was looking for. He was more aggressive, I think, and surprisingly aggressive, given the format of sitting at the table.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    John McCain was?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    John McCain was. But I will say about Obama, he did not sit on his lead, I mean, that he did engage, he did rebut, he did respond. And I think that worked for him tonight.

    And there is, there is just an eerie almost coolness about him. You know he can move people. You wonder what's going to move him. I mean, he's just really remarkable that way, and at a time of crisis.

    I think they both were convinced at some point that there was an acute scarcity of new ground, because they broke very little. I mean, we went back over and we heard the point — I reviewed the transcript from the first debate at Oxford — and I got word for word on the business tax in Ireland being 11 percent and 35 percent, you know, 95 percent of people who won't get a tax cut.

    I did think that Obama had a prepared answer this time where he'd never broken with his party before. And I thought McCain had a far better answer than he'd had before about, if you want to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.

    I thought McCain's best moment of the evening was on the judges, when he said, "I voted for Breyer — for Justice Breyer and Justice Ginsburg"…

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Justice Ginsburg.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    … "because I thought they were qualified."

  • JIM LEHRER:

    What did you think the high points were? Or do you have a list?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Well, I guess I have some low points. I mean, again, I think it's overall demeanor that people are looking for. McCain seemed tight and, frankly, hard to live with for four years. Do you want this man on your TV sets? Whereas Obama did seem somebody you could live with.

    I thought the low points were on the economic situation, where each repeated the little ideas they proposed over the past week, but I wouldn't say either gave us a big picture, where we are, where we're headed, what the long-term impact is going to be. I thought they got lost in their little promises.

    And then, on health care, there are other things on health care costs that are going to feed into this.

    One of the things I was looking for in this debate was — Bob mentioned the deficit. How much should we worry about that? Are we going to just forget about it over the near term, because we need to get out of the recession, or are really we going to cut back because of the long-term fiscal crisis?

    Got no answer. Both of them elided that subject. So I guess I found myself a little frustrated on those things.