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Long IslandPolitics

At long last, a debate with fireworks

Again, Sen. Barack Obama sported an American-flag lapel pin.

And again, Sen. John McCain did not.

And that was how it went at Hofstra.

There was a studied feel, at this late hour, for the charges that might draw blood and defenses that might stanch it.

Context and timing counted for lots, accuracy for much less. By now both contenders know from intensive polling and study of foes' strategies what will gain the crucial few points and what will cost them.

In reaching for the center, the mass in the middle, both men clearly knew from what they chose to present that the negatives were as important as the assurances.

When it was time to attack, which McCain deemed necessary to do, he reached for the heights - or the lows, depending on your viewpoint.

On the fiasco involving the community group ACORN's paid drives to sign up voters, McCain went as far as anyone has, saying the organization "is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds of voter history in this country."

Maybe, he said, it was even on the verge of "destroying the fabric of democracy." McCain alluded to $832,000 from the Obama campaign, to ACORN, a "front outfit." You would think the two major parties didn't jointly run the electoral systems of the states.

But that wasn't all. McCain quoted Hillary Clinton against Obama regarding '60s radical William Ayers. He slapped at Obama's record on late-term abortions in the Illinois State Senate. He struck first on race - slamming Rep. John Lewis' controversial comparison of McCain rallies to the days of racist Alabama Gov. George Wallace. He also attacked Obama as a big-government spender, citing attack ads on his health-care plans.

Obama played defense, sounding organized and controlled, but with a bit of sting. When McCain again called Obama's tax plan potentially harmful to those with annual incomes of only $45,000, the Democrat replied: "Even FOX News disputes it, and that doesn't happen very often when it comes to accusations about me."

There were fast boxing-match exchanges, with Obama running the risk of looking too blase and McCain risking looking too snarky. Like this:

Obama: "And 100 percent, John, of your ads - 100 percent of them - have been negative."

McCain: "It's not true."

Obama: "It absolutely is true."

Both did their appeals to Joe the Plumber, a man who grilled Obama in Ohio over his tax plan. Obama said Joe had clearly been watching McCain's ads.

You get the idea. But with the Hofstra mega-event their final chance, it was an opportunity for both to play defense and offense at the same time.

An example of timing being crucial: McCain tells Obama, who continually ties him to the low-polling incumbent, "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."

Their accuracy will take time to parse, but the tension made the drama of seeing the two battle-tested candidates one last time together seem like the grand finale of a long fireworks show.

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