Today's Papers

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

In the third and final debate of the presidential campaign, John McCain went on the offensive. Sitting next to each other, McCain and Barack Obama “engaged in their most intense confrontation of the campaign,” says the Washington Post. While discussing a wide range of issues, including the economy, judicial appointments, abortion, and trade, the candidates had a debate that “was by far the most spirited and combative of their encounters this fall,” says the New York Times. When asked about the negative tone of the campaign, “Each man blamed the other,” notes the Wall Street Journal, which also points out that, at the very least, voters got a clear view of the stark differences between the candidates’ views on taxes and health care. While many agree it was McCain’s best debate performance, few think the Republican managed to deliver a game-changer. “There was no single moment that was likely to reverberate in the minds of American voters and change the course of an election that has moved dramatically toward Obama in the last several weeks,” says the Los Angeles Times, which mixes it up a bit by leading with its analysis piece and stuffing the blow-by-blow.

USA Todaygoes high with the debate but devotes the traditional lead spot to, while the WSJ banners, the seesawing stock market that went deeply in the red yesterday and all but wiped out the gains from Monday’s huge rally amid growing fears of a deep recession. The Dow Jones industrial average plunged 733 points, or 7.9 percent, which marked its largest percentage drop since 1987. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke added his bit to the general uncertainty by declaring that even if the financial markets stabilize, a “broader economic recovery will not happen right away.”

It may have been their last encounter, but the real star of the night wasn’t either of the presidential candidates—it was a plumber from Ohio, Joe Wurzelbacher. Joe’s name came up a total of 26 times during the debate, according to the LAT’s count. Joe the Plumber met Obama in Ohio this week. He told him he has been saving to buy his company and fears that the Democrat’s economic plan would increase his taxes. McCain seized on the encounter to criticize Obama’s tax plan and say that the Democrat wants to wage “class warfare.” Joe the Plumber quickly became a stand-in to discuss their differences in economic policy.

Obama once again tried to link McCain to President Bush, but this time the Republican candidate was ready and responded with what “may have been the single most memorable line of the debates,” says the WP. “Senator Obama, I am not President Bush,” McCain said. “If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.”

After being silent on the issue in the previous debate, McCain finally brought up Obama’s relationship with William Ayers, which had become a staple of his campaign. McCain also brought up Obama’s connections to a community organizing group, ACORN, which has been accused of voter-registration fraud. That was the point when McCain lost the upper hand he had gained in the first part of the debate, says the NYT’s Patrick Healy. When McCain grew angry over Ayers, he “was no longer gaining ground by showing command on the top issue for voters, the economy; he was turning tetchy over a 1960s radical,” Healy writes.

While McCain was “far more energetic and focused” during much of the debate, he “was not helped by television, and particularly not by the networks’ frequent use of the split screen,” notes the LAT. McCain often looked angry, while Obama kept up the “amused detachment” look that he “perfected in debates this year.” The NYT points out that at times it seemed McCain “was veering from one hot button to another,” trying to get some sort of memorable reaction from his opponent. But Obama didn’t bite and was clearly more comfortable playing defense, “chuckling aloud at several of McCain’s ripostes as though to dismiss them as laughable,” USAT points out. Of course, that had its downsides, and the NYT’s Alessandra Stanley says that Obama was also flat and dispassionate.”

The WP’s Dan Balz talks to Democratic strategists who said Obama “had done what he needed to do by staying calm in the face of McCain’s criticisms.” For their part, Republicans praised McCain’s performance but still recognized that he faces a daunting challenge before Election Day. Slate’s John Dickerson says that while McCain “did well … it wasn’t good enough,” and Obama ultimately won the debate.

And what about Joe the Plumber? He quickly became the most sought-after person in the country by television producers and reporters who rushed to talk to “America’s newly minted folk hero,” as the LAT puts it. “It’s pretty surreal, man, my name being mentioned in a presidential campaign,” he told the Associated Press. (Can’t get enough of Joe? The exchange that started everything is available here, and an interview he did with CBS News after the debate is here.)

While the candidates sprint to the finish line, it’s becoming clearer every day that the winner will become president in the middle of a deep economic slump. A day after the government announced its plan to buy an equity stake in banks across the country, new economic data were released that revealed retail sales plunged 1.2 percent in September. It marked the third straight monthly decline and the largest in three years. Financial analysts seized on this number to say that not only is the economy in a recession but also that it “will be steeper than many of us had feared,” as one economist tells the LAT. Americans are being much more cautious with their money, and some think holiday spending this year will reach its lowest level in nearly 20 years. The WSJ says the new data “suggest the U.S. economy is poised to fall into its deepest recession since the early 1980s.”

The huge sell-off in Wall Street appears to be a sign that investors don’t think any kind of government bailout plan can save the economy. Stock markets around the world continued the downward spiral today. “Investors are recognizing that the financial crisis is not the fundamental problem,” notes the NYT. “It has merely amplified economic ailments that are now intensifying: vanishing paychecks, falling home prices and diminished spending.” Meanwhile, amid all the uncertainty, the rate the banks charge one another for loans has barely moved and remains higher than it was last week.

Everyone says Bernanke strongly hinted that a new round of interest-rate cuts could be on the way, but it’s unclear whether it would even matter that much. The LAT emphasizes the fresh signs of an economic slump might push Congress to act quickly to pass a new stimulus plan that would put money in the hands of ordinary Americans. But while key lawmakers agree something must be done, it’s far from certain they’ll be able to reach a compromise before the next administration.

The WSJ fronts an interesting interview with Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairwoman Sheila Bair that shows there are disagreements within the upper echelons of the administration on how to best carry out the bailout plan. Bair said she doesn’t understand why the government hasn’t been more aggressive in coming out with a plan to prevent foreclosures. “Why there’s been such a political focus on making sure we’re not unduly helping borrowers but then we’re providing all this massive assistance at the institutional level, I don’t understand it,” she said. “It’s been a frustration for me.”

The NYT’s Gail Collins gets a bit nostalgic about the last debate. “For the last two years, dedicated voters have practically lived with Barack Obama and John McCain,” she writes. “We’ve watched three dozen debates!” Those who have been paying attention realize that neither one “is everything we were hoping for when this all began.” But that doesn’t matter to the candidates who now just want to reach the “people who have managed to completely ignore nearly two years of news,” says Collins. “In the end, it’s always all about the ones who play hard to get.”