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Live-blogging the Last Debate

Well, it’s difficult to think we’re less than three weeks out from this election, but here we are, and the stakes in this — the final of three presidential debates this year — are high. Not as high, perhaps, as some of the talking heads would have you think — for several reasons.

First: With Obama up as much as 14 points in the polls, it would take a major screw-up on his part (or a walk-on-water moment for McCain) to make much of a difference.

Second: With the Dow down more than 700 points today, the economy will be the first and last question, and that favors Obama.

Third: How many undecideds could possibly be out there.

Grab a beer. Stick around. We’ll get you through to the other side.

9:02 pm: They take the stage, short applause, and Wall Street’s fall is the first question. No shocker there.

9:03: McCain says Americans are angry, like, three times. Is that like Obama saying we’re bitter, or is there a distinction?

9:04: McCain’s attacking Freddie and Fannie — No mention of his campaign manager’s connection to Freddie, but then again he’s short on time.

9:06: Obama wants to rein in CEO compensation — something Chuck Grassley called for this week as well — but the focus of his pitch is the middle-class tax cut. Uh, uh — long-term fiscal challenges come up early, with Obama wanting to take on the energy and health-care crises we’ve got looming. Good luck with that in this economy.

9:08: McCain repeats the old charge that upping taxes for those making more than $250,000 will hurt small businesses. I’ve never understood this part: Why not just exempt businesses from the plan?

9:10: Oh, boy. Obama says 98 percent of small businesses would not fall under his tax-hike plan — up from 95 percent during the last debate. Gotta love statistics.

9:12: McCain has some weird infatuation with a guy called “Joe the Plumber.” Apparently the Arizona senator wants Joe’s vote. Trouble is, his tax plan won’t help Joe as much as Obama’s.

9:14: Deficit Spending — good question, and Schieffer’s digging in. How you gonna pay for all your promises and rein in spending? Answer: They won’t, but it’ll be interesting to hear the responses.

9:15: Obama is naming a long list of investments in the future — energy policy end reliance on foreign oil; health policy so we’re not paying for worthless treatments. Certainly necessities, but it’ll take money now to save money later, and there’s no acknowledgement of that here.

9:18: Now McCain: He would “certainly” veto every pork-barrel spending bill, and he wouldn’t pay $3 million for an overhead projector. Wow. Now what about the other $1 trillion in deficit spending you’d inherit?

9:20: McCain says he’ll balance the budget in four years. Good luck with that. And he’s back on the kick that Obama voted to raise taxes on everyone making more than $42,000 per year. Not true, but who cares. There are just three weeks left to the election. Facts are out the window.

9:23: Obama defends his tax votes, saying that everyone has disputed the $42,000 claim. “Even Fox news disputes it and that doesn’t happen very often.” Nice line.

9:24: Nancy Pelosi should be proud: Both of these guys have said they want to take the country “in a new direction” — another reminder, if any were needed, just how dreaded a link to Bush would be for McCain. Pelosi should have patented the line.

9:27: McCain goes after John Lewis, the civil-rights hero, for attacking McCain for running a nasty campaign. Obama comes back with this little nugget: 100 percent of McCain’s ads have been negative, he claims. Don’t know where that figure came from, but again, there’s little time for fact-checking before this election. Make your claims while you’ve got the mike. This might be a long night.

9:30: McCain just got in the first-ever reference to the Arizona Cardinals in a presidential debate. Congratulations.

9:33: McCain: “Let me just say, categorically, that I’m proud of the people who come to our rallies.” He’s already got the bigot-vote, so not sure who he’s coddling to there.

9:35: Obama calls for comity, which is comedy in this town recently.

9:36: McCain goes after ACORN over voter fraud — a real principled stand considering his deafening silence after Florida’s voting debacle in 2000, and Ohio’s election mess in 2004. Non-partisan that he is.

9:40: New question: Whose vp pick would make a better president? Obama got served a soft-ball. Biden’s foreign- policy experience; his blue-collar upbringing (reminding of SNL’s take: “Scranton’s a hellhole!!”); tax cuts for middle-class folks; energy independence; education — all clear answers.

9:42: McCain has no easy task here: She’s a reformer, she’ll help special-needs kids and she’s excited the GOP base. Terse response, but not sure how that last bit will help unite a divided country.

9:46: McCain accuses Obama of overspending and raising taxes. Do these two know there’s more to a budget than taxes. Has anyone mentioned that the Iraq war is set to cost over $1 trillion?

9:48: Can we reduce dependence on foreign oil? Both candidates point to the Middle East and Venezuela as the places to quit buying from. Oil drilling: both want to expand offshore exploration. Obama wants America to make a decent car (make a wish), but no mention of conservation. Why can’t a politician tell a voter to turn off a light or take a bus — particularly if the alternative is an intervention in Iraq?

9:52: Moving to free trade: McCain: “Free trade with Columbia is something that’s a no brainer.” Obama: Labor leaders have been targeted for assassinations. Great answer, and oddly terse for Prof. Obama. Question is: How many undecideds care more about human rights in Latin America vs. the health of their 401Ks?

9:56: Still on Columbia trade: There’s no doubt, McCain says, that Obama wants to restrict trade and raise taxes. Who out there believes that NAFTA worked? This is a weird way for McCain to try to steal Ohio.

9:57: On to health plans: This is an issue of regulation of insurance companies (Obama) vs. deregulation of insurance companies (McCain). Joe the Plumber, McCain says, would be fined for not getting health care — that’s patently false, but a solid line as far as scare-tactics go. Obama shouldn’t let that go….And he doesn’t — the fine would be zero, Obama says.

10:02: Obama points out one of the biggest holes in McCain’s health plan: sicker people will have a tougher time getting coverage. That’s a good argument. After all, who in America is well?

10:04: McCain accuses Obama of mandating health care once more. Another scare tactic, but, again, false. Remember that one of Hillary Clinton’s central criticisms of Obama’s plan was that it did not mandate coverage (hers did). He might point that out.

10:06: We’re on Roe v. Wade: Would you appoint a judge that disagrees with you on the issue? McCain claims he’s a federalist — Roe v. Wade was a bad decision, he said, but it should be up to states. No litmus tests for his choices, McCain says, it’s an issue of qualifications. Is it naive to ask: what’s the difference?

10:09: Now Obama doesn’t want litmus tests either. But he’s explaining why his Supreme Court pick would have to support him on R v. W. Didn’t back down, certainly.

10:16: Education: We spend the most, but test near the bottom. What to do? Obama: It’s an economic and national-security issue, he says. “And so, we’ve got to get our education system right.” It”ll take more money, but it’ll be worth it. He wants “an army of new teachers,” and he’ll pay them more. From what fund? There’s no mention.

Obama ends on a familial note: Parents have to make kids turn off the TV. Somewhere out there, Rick Santorum is smiling.

10:20: McCain takes the podium, and says that throwing money at the problem is not the answer. Not clear what he thinks is.

10:21: Schieffer follows up: Should the feds provide more money to schools and education? We know where Obama stands on that one, and he’s tauting his support for vouchers, which won’t go over well with liberals, but then again they’re not on the fence anyway. Line of the night? “I don’t think America’s youth are interest groups. I think they’re our future.”

10:25: Obama’s on the topic of education in DC: Memo to the senator from Illinois: You’ll win it anyway.

10:27: Final statements: McCain is first, calls it a “very healthy discussion.” Then this gem: We cannot be satisfied with the last eight years. Curious sentiment considering the support McCain has lent the Bush administration. He’s served his country, would put country first. He’s a humble man. Yawn.

10:30: Obama’s closing: Message of hope, and again brings up the need for “investment” in the future. “It’s not going to be easy; it’s not going to be quick.” Short and sweet.

No haymakers; no gaffes — certainly not the knock-out McCain needed. But it was a far more interesting debate than the others. To echo the last words of Bob Schiefer: Now go vote.

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