McCain fails to grab his big chance to catch Obama as anti-war protesters scuffle with police during final TV debate

An agitated and angry John McCain threw everything he had at Barack Obama in their final presidential debate early today – but he still  failed to land a knock-out blow on the unruffled Democrat frontrunner.

Desperate to give his flagging campaign a lift, the Republican nominee mixed a flurry of personal and policy attacks on his unflappable and  sometimes bemused rival.

With an edgy mix of impatient eye-rolling and sidelong glares bordering on contempt, Mr McCain, 72, treated the 47-year-old Illinois senator  like a naughty schoolboy, peppering him with jibes over the economy,  abortion rights, healthcare and taxes.

As the televised joust got underway, anti-war protesters scuffled with police outside the debate venue.

Several protesters were arrested and others were injured by police on horseback.


He's behind you: Republican nominee John McCain mixed a flurry of personal and policy attacks on an unflappable and sometimes bemused Barack Obama at the final presidential debate in New York today

McCain went toe-to-toe with Mr Obama over his links to ‘old, washed up terrorist’ William Ayers, a subject that was taboo in their two previous debates.

But Mr Obama, who today was shown to be ahead by 49 to 44 per cent in a new Reuters poll, refused to rise to his opponents’ taunts.

Pundits were mixed in their reaction to the most heated head-to-head confrontation yet at Long Island’s Hofstra University in New York, with Republican analysts praising Mr McCain’s punchy performance as a possible springboard for a comeback.


Protesters and police clash outside Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY, where the debate was held

But a post-debate poll by CNN showed an overwhelming number of US viewers thought Mr Obama was the clear victor.

His debate performance overall won out by 58% to 31%, with 59% to 34% saying he did better on the economy and 66% to 55% giving him better marks for expressing his policies.

A whopping 80% of those questioned said they thought Mr McCain spent more time attacking his opponent, with just 7% claiming Mr Obama was the aggressor.

The sparks began to fly after Mr Obama followed through with one of his main  campaign mantras linking Mr McCain with ‘eight years of failed Bush policies.’


Before the storm: The presidential candidates ahead of the debate

Bristling, Mr McCain immediately retorted: ‘Senator Obama, I am not  President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush you should have done so four years ago.’

‘If I've occasionally mistaken 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,’ hit back Mr Obama.

The two men went back and forth on the relative merits of the economic rescue plans both laid out earlier this week, promising tax cuts for the hard-up middle class.

The veteran Arizona senator kept up his offensive, accusing Mr Obama of waging ‘class warfare’ by seeking tax increases that would ‘spread the wealth around.’

Mr Obama parried the claim – as he did through the debate – by refusing to be drawn into a slanging match and pointing out that his economic plan would give tax cuts to 95% of the American people.

Mr McCain’s short fuse almost blew when, as expected, he launched into a personal attack on Mr Obama over his connections to William Ayers, a Chicago university professor who was a founder member of the Weather Underground activist group that was blamed for a string of bombings in Washington during the 1960s Vietnam War protests.

Determined to try and provoke a reaction from his round table foe and clearly irritated when Mr Obama laughed off his more aggressive verbal thrusts, Mr McCain demanded to know the full extent of his opponent’s relationship with the one-time domestic terrorist.


Rivals: Obama's wife Michelle appaluds her husband's winning performance as McCain and wife Cindy wave on

Mr Obama replied by saying he was eight-years-old when Ayers carried out his ‘despicable acts’ and served on a board with him and other leading lights in Chicago, including the presidents of universities and the city’s biggest newspaper.

‘He has never been an advisor to my campaign and he will not be advising me in the White House,’ said Mr Obama. ‘The fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me.’ he added.

He also refuted claims that his campaign was linked in any way to ACORN, the liberal group dedicated to registering new voters who have become the focus of fraud probes across the country for signing up bogus registrants like Mickey Mouse and the entire Dallas Cowboys American Football team.

‘Apparently what they have 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. Had nothing to do with us. We were not involved,’ Mr Obama  insisted.


Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama shares a laugh with a supporter at the Maumee Bay Resort in Oregon, Ohio, as a new poll gives him a huge 14-point over John McCain

He also criticised Mr McCain’s smear tactics, saying: ‘One hundred percent of your ads, John, 100% of them have been negative.’

The debate was the beginning of a frantic final 20-day countdown to Election Day and possibly Mr McCain’s last chance to land a  game-changing blow on Mr Obama.

Just days after urging his supporters to calm their attacks on his rival, Mr McCain changed tack again by following the prescription offered by Republican leaders and his running mate Sarah Palin to launch an all-out offensive.

Both candidates used the symbol of ‘Joe the plumber’ as an everyman who would benefit from their contrasting blueprints to revive the slumping economy.

The name comes from a real-life plumber called Joe Wurzelbacher, who told Mr Obama in Ohio earlier this week that he feared his tax plans  would punish him as a small business owner.

The plumber came up directly or indirectly 24 times during the debate.  Mr McCain said ‘Joe’ would be driven out of business and be unable to  afford health care under Mr Obama’s tax plans.

However, Mr Obama said: ‘The conversation I had with Joe the Plumber, what I essentially said to him was, five years ago, when you were in the 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.’

Mr McCain also accused Mr Obama of aligning himself with ‘the extreme aspect of the pro-abortion movement in America.’

Mr Obama said no-one was pro-abortion, but defended his position as a supporter of a woman’s right to choose.