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McCain finds himself, but perhaps too late

It took three debates, but John McCain finally found a voice last night to land some attacks on Barack Obama and pitch his own candidacy without coming off as too mean or too angry.

But McCain's problem at Hofstra University was clear - he needed a solid performance like this to win over voters in the first debate, not the last, when Obama is showing signs of pulling away from McCain in the national polls.

In short, it just looked like too little, too late.

McCain scored points when he argued Obama would raise taxes and wage "class warfare." He accused him of breaking his word to the American people on public financing for his campaign.

He even delivered the single-best sound-bite of the debates so far, sure to be replayed over and over again on TV today and pound home a message McCain wants voters to hear: "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush."

Even those small wins were hardly enough to change the contours of a race that feels more every day like Obama's to lose - that vaunted "game-changer" that is almost impossible to score against a cool and composed debater like Obama, who simply hasn't made a major mistake in any of the debates.

So it's doubtful that anything that McCain said or did last night was enough to shake loose many voters who've already decided to back Obama, and those recent-deciding voters are more than enough to turn a 47-year-old senator from Illinois into a history-making President Barack Obama.

The best McCain could hope for out of last night is freezing some undecided voters in place, to keep them from going to Obama - perhaps enough to keep the polls from widening and give McCain a little more time to win them over.

McCain did have Obama back on his heels a bit when McCain accused him of wanting to raise taxes on average voters like "Joe the Plumber" - a name both men invoked to the point of eliciting groans among viewers - but otherwise, Obama parried McCain's frequent attacks with relative ease.

It wasn't for lack of trying by McCain - he surely satisfied his conservative allies by raising both Obama's association with radical Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers and his campaign's ties to ACORN, a left-leaning community organizing group whose voter registrations are being challenged in a dozen states.

The point of both attacks was to make Obama seem like a risky and unsuitable choice for commander in chief - someone who has bad judgment for associating with a man in Ayers, whose group bombed federal buildings to protest the Vietnam War.

But if those were supposed to be McCain's big guns to level against Obama, they both fizzled badly - probably simply confusing voters unfamiliar with those issues.

Not only that, but Obama's best defense against attacks designed to make him look like a scary choice is that he looks like anything but, approaching these debates with a composure and ease that disarm the attacks almost without words. Obama even showed appealing flashes of humor, such as when he noted even Fox News, a favorite of conservatives, thought McCain was lying about Obama's tax plan.

McCain did seem to learn from prior debates that he needed to engage Obama directly, or risk looking condescending - and McCain addressed Obama frequently, to good effect. If anything, McCain's performance showed flashes of what might have been in a campaign now struggling for survival with three weeks to go, if he had stuck more to his happy warrior persona from 2000 and less to a slash-and-burn style that has marked his campaign approach.

That McCain - feisty without being bitter, a fighter without being in-your-face - was on stage at times last night, and voters might wonder whether he would have fared better against Obama this year.

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