The Third Presidential Debate: Highlights


The Third Presidential Debate between Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican nominee John McCain, was held October 15, 2008 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Bob Schieffer of CBS News moderated the debate which focused on domestic issues and the economy.

Senators Barack Obama and John McCain face off at Hofstra University (Photo: Damon Winter / The New York Times)

Barack Obama and John McCain face off at Hofstra University

The Stats

  • Mediacurves: 60% of Independents say Obama won, 30% say McCain, 10% called it a tie
  • A CBS poll of uncommitted voters: 53% of voters say Obama won, 22% say McCain.
  • CNN debate poll: 58% of voters say Obama won, 31% say McCain
  • Polls October 14, 2008: General Election: McCain vs. Obama – Real Clear Politics, 10-14-08
  • Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby: Obama has four-point lead on McCain: 48 percent to 44 – Reuters, 10-13-08

In the News…

Senators Barack Obama and John McCain before their third and final debate at Hofstra University. (Photo: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

Barack Obama and John McCain before the debate

Candidate Soundbites

  • Full Transcript Download

    On Joe the Plumber

  • McCAIN: No. I would like to mention that 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. 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. You were going to put him in a higher tax bracket which was going to increase his taxes, which was going to cause him not to be able to employ people, which Joe was trying to realize the American dream. Now Sen. Obama talks about the very, very rich. Joe, I want to tell you, I’ll not only help you buy that business that you worked your whole life for and be able — and I’ll keep your taxes low and I’ll provide available and affordable health care for you and your employees. And I will not have — I will not stand for a tax increase on small business income. Fifty percent of small business income taxes are paid by small businesses. That’s 16 million jobs in America. And what you want to do to Joe the plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business.
  • OBAMA: He has been watching ads of Sen. McCain’s. Let me tell you what I’m actually going to do. I think tax policy is a major difference between Sen. McCain and myself. And we both want to cut taxes, the difference is who we want to cut taxes for…. 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.” 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. And that requires us to make some important choices. The last point I’ll make about small businesses. Not only do 98 percent of small businesses make less than $250,000, but I also want to give them additional tax breaks, because they are the drivers of the economy. They produce the most jobs.
  • McCAIN: You know, when Sen. Obama ended up his conversation with Joe the plumber — we need to spread the wealth around. In other words, we’re going to take Joe’s money, give it to Sen. Obama, and let him spread the wealth around. I want Joe the plumber to spread that wealth around. You told him you wanted to spread the wealth around. The whole premise behind Sen. Obama’s plans are class warfare, let’s spread the wealth around. I want small businesses — and by the way, the small businesses that we’re talking about would receive an increase in their taxes right now.
  • On Taxes

  • OBAMA:So, look, nobody likes taxes. I would prefer that none of us had to pay taxes, including myself. But ultimately, we’ve got to pay for the core investments that make this economy strong and somebody’s got to do it.
  • McCAIN: Nobody likes taxes. Let’s not raise anybody’s taxes. OK?
  • OBAMA: Well, I don’t mind paying a little more.
  • McCAIN: The fact is that businesses in America today are paying the second highest tax rate of anywhere in the world. Our tax rate for business in America is 35 percent. Ireland, it’s 11 percent.
  • On the Economy

  • OBAMA: We need to eliminate a whole host of programs that don’t work. And I want to go through the federal budget line by line, page by page, programs that don’t work, we should cut. Programs that we need, we should make them work better.
  • McCAIN: OK, what — what would I cut? I would have, first of all, across-the-board spending freeze, OK? Some people say that’s a hatchet. That’s a hatchet, and then I would get out a scalpel, OK? Because we’ve got — we have presided over the largest increase — we’ve got to have a new direction for this country. We have presided over the largest increase in government since the Great Society. Government spending has gone completely out of control; $10 trillion dollar debt we’re giving to our kids, a half-a-trillion dollars we owe China. I know how to save billions of dollars in defense spending. I know how to eliminate programs.
  • On President Bush

  • OBAMA: We need to eliminate a whole host of programs that don’t work. And I want to go through the federal budget line by line, page by page, programs that don’t work, we should cut. Programs that we need, we should make them work better….
    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. And, frankly, Sen. McCain voted for four out of five of President Bush’s budgets. We’ve got to take this in a new direction, that’s what I propose as president.
  • McCAIN: I am not President Bush. If you want to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I’m going to give a new direction to this economy and this country. Sen. Obama talks about voting for budgets. He voted twice for a budget resolution that increases the taxes on individuals making $42,000 a year. Of course, we can take a hatchet and a scalpel to this budget. It’s completely out of control. The mayor of New York, Mayor Bloomberg, just imposed an across- the-board spending freeze on New York City. They’re doing it all over America because they have to. Because they have to balance their budgets. I will balance our budgets and I will get them and I will…
  • On the Negative Campaign

  • McCAIN: Well, this has been a tough campaign. It’s been a very tough campaign. And I know from my experience in many campaigns that if Senator Obama had asked — responded to my urgent request to sit down and do town-hall meetings and come before the American people, we could have done at least 10 of them by now. When Senator Obama was first asked, he said anyplace, anytime — the way Barry Goldwater and Jack Kennedy agreed to do before the intervention of the tragedy at Dallas.
    So I think the tone of this campaign could have been very different. And the fact is, it’s gotten pretty tough, and I regret some of the negative aspects of both campaigns. But the fact is that it has taken many turns which I think are unacceptable. One of them happened just the other day, when a man I admire and respect — I’ve written about him — 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 — that, to me, was so hurtful.
    And Senator Obama, you didn’t repudiate those remarks. Every time there’s been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them. I hope that Senator Obama will repudiate those remarks that were made by Congressman John Lewis. They’re very unfair and totally inappropriate. So I want to tell you, we will run a truthful campaign. This is a tough campaign. And it’s a matter of fact that Senator Obama has spent more money on negative ads than any political campaign in history, and I can prove it.
    And Senator Obama, when he said — and he signed a piece of paper that said he would take public financing for his campaign if I did. That was back when he was a long-shot candidate. You didn’t keep your word. And when you looked into the camera in a debate with Senator Clinton and said, “I will sit down and negotiate with John McCain about public financing before I make a decision,” you didn’t tell the American people the truth, because you didn’t. And that’s — that’s — that’s an unfortunate part. Now we have the highest spending by Senator Obama’s campaign than any time.
  • OBAMA: All right. Well, look, you know, I think that we expect presidential campaigns to be tough. I think that if you look at the record and the impressions of the American people — Bob, your network just did a poll showing that two-thirds of the American people think that Senator McCain’s running a negative campaign versus one-third of mine. And 100 percent, John, of your ads — 100 percent of them — have been negative…. A hundred — it — it absolutely is true. And — and — now, 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. And there is nothing wrong with us having a vigorous debate, like we’re having tonight, about health care, about energy policy, about tax policy. That’s the stuff that campaigns should be made of. The notion, though, that because we’re not doing town-hall meetings, that justifies some of the ads that have been going up not just from your own campaign directly, John, but 527s and other organizations that make some pretty tough accusations — well, I don’t mind being attacked for the next three weeks.
  • On William Ayers, a 1960s-era radical, and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN:

  • McCAIN: Mr. Ayers, I don’t care about an old washed-up terrorist. But as Sen. Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship. We need to know the full extent of Sen. Obama’s relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.
  • OBAMA: Mr. Ayers has become the centerpiece of Sen. McCain’s campaign over the last two or three weeks. This has been their primary focus. So let’s get the record straight. Bill Ayers is a professor of education in Chicago. Forty years ago, when I was 8 years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. … Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House. So that’s Mr. Ayers. Now, with respect to ACORN, ACORN is a community organization. Apparently what they’ve done is they were paying people to go out and register folks, and apparently some of the people who were out there didn’t really register people, they just filled out a bunch of names. It had nothing to do with us. We were not involved.
  • On Their Running Mates’ Qualifications:

  • McCAIN: Well, Americans have gotten to know Sarah Palin. They know that she’s a role model to women and other — and reformers all over America. She’s a reformer.
  • OBAMA: On the key issues that are of importance to American families, Joe Biden’s always been on the right side, and I think he will make an outstanding president if, heaven forbid, something happened to me.
  • On whether their rival’s vice presidential picks are qualified to be president:

  • McCAIN: I think that Joe Biden is qualified in many respects. But I do point out that he’s been wrong on many foreign policy and national security issues, which is supposed to be his strength. He voted against the first Gulf War. He voted against it and, obviously, we had to take Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait or it would’ve threatened the Middle Eastern world supply. In Iraq, he had this cockamamie idea about dividing Iraq into three countries. We’re seeing Iraq united as Iraqis, tough, hard, but we’re seeing them. We’re now about to have an agreement for status of forces in Iraq coming up. There are several issues in which, frankly, Joe Biden and I open and honestly disagreed on national security policy, and he’s been wrong on a number of the major ones.
  • OBAMA: That’s going to be up to the American people. I think that, obviously, she’s a capable politician who has, I think, excited the — a base in the Republican Party. And I think it’s very commendable the work she’s done on behalf of special needs. I agree with that, John. I do want to just point out that autism, for example, or other special needs will require some additional funding, if we’re going to get serious in terms of research. That is something that every family that advocates on behalf of disabled children talk about. And if we have an across- the-board spending freeze, we’re not going to be able to do it.
  • On Late-Term Abortions

  • OBAMA: With respect to partial-birth abortion, I am completely supportive of a ban on late-term abortions, partial-birth or otherwise, as long as there’s an exception for the mother’s health and life, and this did not contain that exception. And I attempted, as many have in the past, of including that so that it is constitutional. And that was rejected, and that’s why I voted present, because I’m willing to support a ban on late-term abortions as long as we have that exception.
  • McCAIN: Just again, the example of the eloquence of Sen. Obama. He’s … health for the mother. You know, that’s been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That’s the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, health. But, look, Cindy and I are adoptive parents. We know what a treasure and joy it is to have an adopted child in our lives. We’ll do everything we can to improve adoption in this country. But that does not mean that we will cease to protect the rights of the unborn.
  • On Education:

  • OBAMA: I do think that it is important for the federal government to step up and help local school districts do some of the things they need to do. Now we tried to do this under President Bush. He put forward No Child Left Behind. Unfortunately, they left the money behind for No Child Left Behind. And local school districts end up having more of a burden, a bunch of unfunded mandates, the same kind of thing that happened with special education where we did the right thing by saying every school should provide education to kids with special needs, but we never followed through on the promise of funding, and that left local school districts very cash-strapped.
  • McCAIN: Now as far as the No Child Left Behind is concerned, it was a great first beginning in my view. It had its flaws, it had its problems, the first time we had looked at the issue of education in America from a nationwide perspective. And we need to fix a lot of the problems. We need to sit down and reauthorize it. But, again, spending more money isn’t always the answer. I think the Head Start program is a great program. A lot of people, including me, said, ‘Look, it’s not doing what it should do.’ By the third grade many times children who were in the Head Start program aren’t any better off than the others. Let’s reform it. Let’s reform it and fund it.

Senator Hillary Clinton at the debate
Senator Hillary Clinton was in the audience of the presidential debate. (Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times)


Historians’ Comments

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian on “Getting to know the candidates”: A little bit. But I think my overwhelming feeling is that, if Barack Obama is elected president 20 days from now, his performance in all three of these debates is going to have a lot to do with the reason.
    Because, you know, you go back to John Kennedy in 1960 or Jimmy Carter in ’76, Bill Clinton in 1992, these were candidates who were not very well-known to the American people at the beginning. They were challenging people who were the candidate of the party that owned the White House.
    And they used these debates, one by one, to basically let the American people feel comfortable with them, with the idea of them as president. A lot of Americans who may have agreed with Barack Obama were nervous about him before these debates began; I think there are very few people tonight who will feel that way. – PBS Newshour, 10-15-08
  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS on “Antagonism favors a cool Obama”: I think John McCain really hurt himself, because one feature of these debates is that, when a candidate really tries to go on the attack, especially in a personal way, almost always hurts himself.
    Remember when George H.W. Bush, who was a rather gentlemanly guy, out of frustration against Bill Clinton began saying, “I just don’t know about a guy who demonstrated on foreign soil against the United States, made this mysterious visit to Moscow,” it only diminished him, made him look almost desperate.
    It didn’t help Bob Dole in 1996 when he tried to do the same thing in the debates against Bill Clinton. So one of the things about not only these debates, but especially this format where you have the two of them sitting at a table, I just don’t know how a candidate can bring up things like that, that are pretty negative and antagonistic and, in a way, not hurt himself with a lot of voters. – PBS Newshour, 10-15-08
  • Gil Troy “MIA in the Debates: Obama the dreamer, McCain the Hero”: While the first debate did reassure, demonstrating that both these candidates were competent and idealistic men of character, the overall effect after three debates diminished them both. Like weary boxers in the fifteenth round, the two candidates fought each other to a draw – and at this point, the tie helps Obama the front-runner in most polls. But after weeks now of devastating economic news, with foreign policy challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere still looming, it is legitimate to miss Obama the dreamer and McCain the hero. This campaign, more than most, requires candidates offering vision and reassurance. Still, with any luck – and in keeping with the rhythms of American politics – the buildup from Election Day to Inauguration Day will allow whoever wins to resurrect his better self as Americans rally around their new leader and turn to him to fulfill their dreams ever so heroically. – HNN, 10-15-08
  • Alan Schroeder “Debate expectations high for John McCain”: “This is one of his last opportunities to mix things up, and literally his last opportunity to confront Obama in a direct way,” said Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University professor and presidential debate historian. “This is his chance to get his mojo back.”
    “Two debates ago, I’d have said he needs to turn up the heat,” Schroeder said. “But his low-key performance has served him well. There’s so much turmoil in the world, being a cool and unflappable customer benefits him.” – Boston Herald, 10-15-08
  • Julian E. Zelizer “The Final Throw-Down Can Obama Be Reagan Tonight?”: “It’s pretty dull, but this is how Obama closes,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “There’s no drama to his campaigning. He gets the lead and he holds it. What we saw during the primaries was his calmness, his coolness, the ability to run out the clock. And you’re seeing a very similar thing now.” – Washington Independent, 10-15-08
  • Sheri Parks “Debates drawing big TV audiences in Baltimore Large number of black households helps propel combined ratings to highest in U.S.”: “The reason, of course, is Barack Obama, who has made it possible for African-Americans to hope again,” said Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, who specializes in the study of media, pop culture and African-American families. “Many African-Americans, and I am one of them, did not expect to see this in our lifetimes, an African-American who could be president, and you are not going miss any chance to see him on television.” – Baltimore Sun, 10-15-08
John and Cindy McCain with Barack and Michelle Obama after the debate ended. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

McCain and Obama, after the debate


1 Comment

  1. the fact that anyone is praising McCain for his performance in the third debate proves that he and Palin have lowered people’s expectations down to nothing (don’t forget, the VP debates were a tie!)

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