HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - Fresh off their energetic debate, Republican John McCain looks to hold onto traditionally GOP states while Democrat Barack Obama edges into that turf and pours money into TV ads less than three weeks before Election Day.
McCain planned to visit swing states but was being forced to go to Republican territory as polls show Obama with the edge in such places as Virginia, Colorado and Florida. Obama was heading in the next few days to Virginia and Missouri, states often out of reach for Democrats but up for grabs in a year with Republicans under fire.
McCain tried to blunt a familiar line of attack when he asserted during the debate Wednesday night, "Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush." But Obama quickly turned that argument against his rival in a new TV spot. "True," the ad's announcer responds, "but you did vote with Bush 90 percent of the time."
Instant polls showed viewers giving the final debate to Obama as they had the previous two debates. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll found 58 percent of debate watchers saying Obama did the best job and 31 percent saying McCain performed best. Favorable opinions of Obama rose slightly while those of McCain dropped slightly, the poll found.
Uncommitted voters named Obama as the winner by a margin of 53 percent to 22 percent in a CBS News/Knowledge Networks poll. On the question of whose image improved, 46 percent of uncommitted voters said their view of Obama changed for the better while 30 percent said that of McCain. Nearly as many — 26 percent — said their opinion of McCain was worse after the debate while 10 percent said that of Obama.
One unique debate watcher was "Joe the Plumber" — Joe Wurzelbacher of Holland, Ohio, whose exchange with Obama about taxes and small businesses a few days earlier elicited dozens of references from the candidates during the debate.
"It floored me. It's not something I expected, ever," Wurzelbacher told "Good Morning America" on ABC. Though he wouldn't say for whom he was voting, Wurzelbacher said Obama had a "very socialist view" of taxes "and that's incredibly wrong."
The 90-minute debate at Hofstra University marked the beginning of a sprint to Election Day. Obama leads in the national polls and in surveys in many battleground states, an advantage built in the weeks since the nation stumbled into the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Looking to shake up the race, McCain questioned Obama's character and his policies. He linked Obama to a 1960s radical, accused him of planning tax increases that would cripple the economy and said he was dishonest about a promise to accept public campaign financing.
"You didn't tell the American people the truth," the Arizona senator said.
Obama ignored that charge and remained calm throughout the debate. He often turned the accusations against McCain, calling them examples of the petty politics harming the country.
"The important point here is, though, the American people have become so cynical about our politics, because all they see is a tit-for-tat and back-and-forth," the Illinois senator said. "And what they want is the ability to just focus on some really big challenges that we face right now."
McCain went on offense from the opening moments, accusing Obama of waging class warfare by seeking tax increases that would "spread the wealth around."
He also demanded to know the full extent of Obama's relationship with college professor William Ayers, once a Vietnam War protester and part of a group that bombed government buildings, and the Democrat's ties with ACORN, a liberal group accused of violating federal law as it seeks to register voters. McCain said the group could be on the verge of "destroying the fabric of democracy."
Obama condemned Ayers' violent activities and denied any significant ties to ACORN, mocking McCain for bringing them up.
"I think the fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Sen. McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me," he said.
Obama returned each volley from McCain, at one point brushing aside McCain's claim to full political independence after the Republican said: "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
Obama replied: "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."