Who'd 'a thunk that the final of three presidential debates would feature a dialogue concerning a character named "Joe the Plumber" -- as if the climactic encounter between rival contenders for the leadership of the Free World in 2008 would come off like some long-lost episode from The Sopranos?
There were times indeed when the encounter between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain would have the look of a sitdown between rival wise guys, an intermittently tense affair requiring the hands-on moderation of a consigliere - in this case the unflappable and strictly neutral Bob Schieffer. The turf being bargained over here was no strip of East Jersey shoreline, of course, but the whole of the 50 states - and such sections of the globe itself that, in a difficult year of a troubled era, remained under the sway of the super-power U.S.A.
Joe the Plumber (real name: Joe Wurzelbacher) was an Ohio tradesman who, as those of us watching on TV learned from McCain's explanation, had approached Obama at the close of a recent rally - putting the arm on him, as it were, and complaining that the Democrat's proposed tax formulas would hamper his efforts to maximize his own profits. (That meant, as the dialogue developed, that Wurzelbacher had to be making more than $250,000 annually - the ceiling beyond which an earner's taxes would rise under Obama's plan; anybody surprised by that has never had to call - or pay - a plumber.)
It was somehow appropriate that so much of the early conversation focused on an Ohian, given that the the state is a fought-over territory regarded as crucial by both contending parties in this election -- as in the last two, in which hanky-panky was charged by the narrowly losing Democrats -- and the most recent polls had the state even-steven again.
Ohio Über Alles
By at least one of the cable networks carrying the affair, the denizens of Ohio were assigned a special role in the resolution of this latest confrontation between Obama and McCain. CNN had electronically rigged up a sample of "undecided" Ohio voters off-screen so that, via seismic-looking lines at the bottom of the screen, viewers could see these voters' ever-fluctuating reactions to what was being said by the two candidates. There was one line for men and another for women, and the two lines frequently took off in different directions.
Just as various polls had prepared one to believe, men tended to give McCain's observations the greater benefit of the doubt, while women on the whole sided with Obama. But there were times when both lines soared upward or downward together, unpredictably.
Along with hundreds of other reporters, print and electronic, famous and nondescript, all uniformly quiet and attentive, I had seen the previous two encounters between the two presidential candidates from jumbo screens in the large media rooms in the two places - Oxford, Mississippi, and Nashville, Tennessee - where candidates McCain and Obama had tangled. The intervening vice-presidential debate between Republican Sarah Palin and Democrat Joe Biden I'd seen on TV in the privacy of my bedroom at home.
For this debate I wanted to sample some partisan sources, and my original intent had been to drive down to Oxford again, where, after a planned afternoon debate at the University of Mississippi between congressional candidates Travis Childers and Greg Davis, an old-fashioned come-one, come-all picnic rally had been scheduled - featuring, among various other candidates, U.S. Senate candidates Roger Wicker, the incumbent Republican, and Ronnie Musgrove, his Democratic challenger. When the rally was over, everybody would in theory settle down together and watch McCain and Obama on TV.
Mixing the Venues
I aborted that plan after learning that Musgrove would be arriving late and Wicker would be a no-show. I resolved instead to spend the evening visiting screenings of the debate in the company of (a) Shelby County Republicans, (b) a group whose meet-up name, "Drinking Liberally," pretty much describes their politics; and (c) Shelby County Democrats. The attendees at all three gatherings were uniformly hospitable and attentive but engaged in the proceedings to the point of spontaneously expressing their feelings about what was happening on-screen.
The Republican debate affair, which I started with, was held at the party's East Memphis headquarters in the Park Place Mall shopping center. It was a smallish audience - down, I was told, from the "200 or so" people who'd been at the last debate at the same venue.
The one TV screen was turned onto the GOP-favored Fox News, and, just before things got under way, Bill O'Reilly was complaining to Fox Washington Bureau chief Britt Hume about the role of moderators in the debate series so far. A moderator, O'Reilly harrumphed, should intervene as often as possible, putting the candidates in their places whenever one of them said something "wrong." Hume - who, as Fox viewers surely know, is no slouch at judgmental asides himself - patiently explained that taking sides was not the province of a moderator, whose role was better devoted to keeping things moving along in as neutral a way as possible.
And, indeed, once things got under way, that was how Bob Schieffer of CBS comported himself. As far as I could tell from comments both sotto voce and out loud Wednesday night, the viewers of all political persuasions would adjudge Schieffer to have acquitted himself better than had previous debate moderators Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, and Tom Brokaw.
The first, or "Joe the Plumber," segment of the debate, had to do with taxes, basically, something the Republicans I talked to before the debate, were plainly worried about. For that audience, McCain's aggressive behavior was resonating. I had intended to stay with the GOP folks somewhat longer than I did but both the audio and the video portions of the debate kept freezing on their Jumbo screen - an unfortunate effect of the video-streaming computer hookup they had going. So I moved on to the "Drinking Liberally" gathering on the Highland Strip.
The Ayers 'Issue'
It was in the car on the way over that I heard the candidates discuss what was potentially, and maybe actually, the most volatile subject of the night - the issue of personal attacks by the two campaigns. Amid all the fustian of this discussion, the two lines that stood out were Obama's matter-of-fact statement that McCain seemed to have made '60s radical Bill Ayers the centerpoint of his campaign and McCain's offended rejoinder that he would not "stand for" criticism of the people attending his rallies. I dearly wish I had seen how the partisans of either persuasion had reacted to this portion of the debate. But I could imagine.
An assortment of domestic issues were the focus during the time I spent with the "Drinking Liberally" folks at RP Billiards. A representative comment was a young woman's startled response when the CNN electronic lines (no Fox News here!) showed Ohio viewers responding favorably to McCain's impassioned call for off-shore oil drilling. "These people must be crazy!" she said.
The most jam-packed of the debate venues was the one I concluded with - the official Democratic Party gathering at the Lobster King restaurant on North Cleveland. There were two telling responses in the end game of the debate. One - wholly unexpected by me - came when Obama, commenting on education policy, observed that the key to improvement did not lie wholly with teachers, but also with parents. That drew a spontaneous and prolonged burst of applause. The next most cacophonous moment was more predictable - a frenzy of out-loud disdain by this overwhelmingly pro-choice audience when McCain made an effort to split some hairs in favor of his pro-life philosophy.
For most of the debate, if those electronic response lines on CNN could be believed, Obama seemed to have the advantage, and the immediate post-debate polls, just like the samplings after each of the previous debates, had the confident Democrat well ahead. But there were moments, even in the midst of these partisan gatherings in Memphis, in which ambivalence would - in the idiom of Sarah Palin - rear its head.
It had been a Republican at the first gathering I attended who confided to me, soft and low, as unobtrusively as possible, so as not to be understood nearby, "Obama's just so smooth. Utterly unflappable. Presidential." And it was a Democrat later on who noted sympathetically about the shots -- unflattering to McCain -- in which the two contenders were framed side-by-side in close-up and the Arizona senator had a distinctly mumpsy look, "That's the aftermath of one of his cancer surgeries. His left cheek was affected by it.'
Yogi Berra's Advice
Ay, there's the rub, for those who want to read the various poll results these days as meaning that this game is over. Obama would indeed seem to be well ahead, and the dreary economic times certainly favor him as the the representative of the non-incumbent party. But there was one moment, just at the close of Wednesday night's debate, that served as a reminder of the Yoga Berra-ism that it ain't over 'til it's over.
It came during the candidates' closing remarks. First McCain, who for the moment wasn't agitating away at this or that issue in an anxious effort to catch up but was making a modest and compelling pitch, redolent with reminders of his military record and that of his forebears, for a chance to serve his country this one last time. Some might have seen it as so much canned cheese. The tending-upward CNN line showed that viewers appreciated it.
When Obama, in his turn, resorted to the careful, reasonable remarks which had served him well in the debate proper, his own viewer line didn't rise to the same level. This could mean no more than that viewers felt a twinge of sympathy for the underdog McCain, who in that close became once again a facsimile of the party-transcending figure of his 2000 presidential race.
Or it could be an echo of a mid-20th century presidential race - the one which pitted a confident, cautious, and elevated figure from the challenging party against the seemingly doomed, desperate, and flailing representative of the party in power. The polls all showed the challenger with a comfortable lead. But that election was not won by Thomas E. Dewey, despite the headline or two, prepared well in advance, that said so. It was won instead by the candidate picked by no poll except the final one: give-'em-hell Harry S. Truman.
Truman was a Democrat's Democrat, of course. But it's hard to remember a time when a candidate running behind, regardless of party, didn't try to compare himself to the doughty little man from the Show-Me state of Missouri. Both McCain and Palin have done so more than once in this campaign.
They're probably dreaming, of course. An increasing number of Republicans concede, privately, that a GOP victory is unlikely. But this one won't be over until sometime late on the evening of November 4th. And any counting of chickens before that final hatching is premature. Debates or no debates. Polls or no polls.