THE key moment in the final TV debate between John McCain and Barack Obama came when the chairman, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, asked the presidential candidates whether they would be willing to repeat face-to-face some of the personal charges they had made about their opponent.

It was McCain's bad luck that it was his turn to go first and he began, incredibly, by accusing Obama of running a negative campaign. But he could not resist bringing up his already played-out accusations about Obama's links to Bill Ayres, the 1960s radical protestor who is now a professor of education in Chicago. Obama replied succinctly and dismissively, leaving McCain looking like a man who cannot stop scratching a sore.

Until that moment the debate had been pretty even and sometimes marginally in McCain's favour but thereafter Obama's calm manner and consistent presentation of his policies left his opponent behind. There were several times when Obama chose to ignore opportunities to score easy debating points in order to underline his preference for debating the issues - a theme he returned to frequently.

The 2008 series of TV debates has been somewhat disappointing. The depressing economic background in the United States has made it difficult for either candidate to propose major policy reforms without being asked - How will you pay for them? Failing any dramatic event in the campaigns in the next 17 days, voters on November 4 will have to choose the man they think most likely to guide them safely through the gathering recession.


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