A newly aggressive John McCain clashed repeatedly with Barack Obama on Wednesday over raising taxes in a tough economy, the nasty tenor...

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HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — A newly aggressive John McCain clashed repeatedly with Barack Obama on Wednesday over raising taxes in a tough economy, the nasty tenor of each campaign and a former 1960s radical activist turned Chicago professor.

It was the last debate before the final 20-day slog until Election Day. And it was the last time the two candidates were likely to meet before one becomes the president-elect and the other returns to the Senate.

For both men, the third of their three debates could not have been more important — or tense. McCain needed to knock Obama off-balance and upset the direction of the campaign, which has been trending toward Obama, according to polls. Obama needed to stick to his message of change and hope.

In many ways, Obama managed to remain calm in the face of McCain’s onslaught, sometimes even laughing. But the Democratic nominee was forced to spend time defending and explaining his plans, policies, supporters, and even himself.

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Taking center stage at the debate at Hofstra University was a plumber named Joe from Ohio who was invoked so often throughout the 90-minute session that it became comical. He was mentioned 24 times.

“A couple days ago, Sen. Obama was out in Ohio and he had an encounter with a guy who’s a plumber, his name is Joe Wurzelbacher,” McCain said. “Joe wants to buy the business that he has been in for all of these years, worked 10, 12 hours a day. And he wanted to buy the business, but he looked at your tax plan and he saw that he was going to pay much higher taxes.”

Obama insisted that he would cut taxes for people making less than $250,000 a year.

“Now, the conversation I had with Joe the plumber, what I essentially said to him was, ‘Five years ago, when you were in a position to buy your business, you needed a tax cut then,’ ” Obama said. “And what I want to do is to make sure that the plumber, the nurse, the firefighter, the teacher, the young entrepreneur who doesn’t yet have money, I want to give them a tax break now.”

Obama, however, also went after McCain, criticizing him for siding with President Bush so many times that the nation’s budget surplus has turned into a deficit and the national debt has doubled in eight years.

“So one of the things that I think we have to recognize is pursuing the same kinds of policies that we pursued over the last eight years is not going to bring down the deficit,” Obama said. “And, frankly, Senator McCain voted for four out of five of President Bush’s budgets.”

McCain fairly leaped out of his chair to say, “Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I’m going to give a new direction to this economy in this country.”

Acknowledging McCain had his differences with Bush, Obama nonetheless said, “The fact of the matter is, is that if I occasionally mistake 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.”

The most intense minutes of the evening came as the moderator, CBS News’ Bob Schieffer, noted that Obama’s campaign has used words such as “erratic,” “out of touch,” and “losing his bearings” to describe McCain. And he said McCain’s campaign has described Obama as “dishonorable,” “dangerous,” and “palling around with terrorists.”

Schieffer asked each man if he was willing to say those same things to each other’s face. Both acknowledged the campaign had become very tough.

McCain accused Obama of saying one thing and then doing another when it came to agreeing to hold joint town-hall meetings and taking public dollars for his campaign. And he said he was stunned by accusations leveled at him and his running mate, Sarah Palin, by a prominent Obama supporter.

“[Georgia] Congressman John Lewis, an American hero, made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history, segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That, to me, was so hurtful,” McCain said.

“And, Senator Obama, you didn’t repudiate those remarks,” he said. “Every time there’s been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them.”

In fact, Obama’s campaign did repudiate Lewis’ comments shortly after they were made: “Senator Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies. But John Lewis was right to condemn some of the hateful rhetoric that John McCain himself personally rebuked just last night,” the campaign said in a statement at the time.

Obama said Lewis was responding to “what he was hearing at some of the rallies that your running mate was holding, in which all the public reports indicated [that people at the rallies] were shouting, when my name came up, things like ‘terrorist’ and ‘kill him.’ “

Obama accused McCain of running “100 percent” negative ads and said a new poll showed more people thought McCain was running a negative campaign than Obama was.

“I think the American people are less interested in our hurt feelings during the course of the campaign than addressing the issues that matter to them so deeply,” Obama said, adding that the country could not afford four more years of a failed economic policy.

But McCain said he’s watched Obama’s ads that have misrepresented his positions.

“You’re running ads right now that say that I oppose federal funding for stem-cell research. I don’t,” McCain said. “You’re running ads that misportray completely my position on immigration. So the fact is that Senator Obama is spending unprecedented — unprecedented in the history of American politics, going back to the beginning — amounts of money in negative attack ads on me.”

Obama was the first to talk about 1960s radical-turned-Chicago-college-professor Bill Ayers about 30 minutes into the debate, noting that McCain’s campaign has said “I pal around with terrorists.”

McCain said he didn’t really care “about an old washed-up terrorist.” But he invoked Sen. Hillary Clinton to say he agreed that “we need to know the full extent of that relationship.”

Obama said McCain had made Ayers “the centerpiece” of his campaign.

Information from McClatchy Newspapers and The New York Times is included in this report.

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