Tuesday night’s debate, a town-hall discussion dominated by economic questions, made it clear that John McCain’s effort to change the campaign’s focus to the culture wars of the 1960s is not going to work. Voters want candidates to talk about problems and how to solve them, especially the enormous ones we are confronting now.

And so it was that while McCain took shots at Barack Obama — about his “cronies and his friends” at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, about his tax proposals, about his health-care plan — he could not drag the debate into the more obscure and personal assaults on his Democratic foe that his campaign is peddling. Doing so would not have looked serious or in touch.

A few days ago, McCain lieutenant Greg Strimple told The Washington Post that the Republican side is “looking forward to turning a page on this financial crisis.” The debate and the continuing meltdown in the markets showed that this just isn’t going to happen.

It’s clear why Strimple wishes that page would turn. America’s economic upheavals have transformed the electoral landscape in Obama’s favor. Ohio, which I visited on the eve of the debate, is Ground Zero of the McCain implosion. It’s a state McCain absolutely must win, but recent polls show Obama with a clear lead.

Ohio Democrats sense that a contest they once feared losing has turned decisively in Obama’s direction because the economy is “front and center,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat whose district includes Youngstown.

“People are listening more, they’re more open to what [Obama] and his surrogates are saying, and they don’t want four more years,” Ryan said.

The main lesson of the debate is that McCain realizes he must get voters to listen to him, too. He has to find his way back to substance and prove he would provide, in his words, “a cool hand at the tiller.” Presumably, he will leave it to his running mate, Sarah Palin, his consultants and his surrogates to peddle the mud.

Palin seems eager to do the job of exaggerating Obama’s ties to Bill Ayers, the veteran of the violent Weather Underground of the Vietnam era who has become a community activist in Obama’s Chicago neighborhood. On Saturday, Palin cast matters in the most offensive way possible, accusing Obama of “palling around with terrorists.”

It was thought that McCain might continue that line of attack Tuesday night. Instead, the debate was as sober as the current circumstances call for. Neither candidate committed a large error. Both demonstrated that there are large philosophical differences between them. McCain kept reverting to talk about spending cuts and individual choice in health care, though he did propose an expensive-sounding program to buy up defaulting mortgages. Obama spoke of the costs of deregulation, the need for new programs in health care and an aggressive government response to the economic crisis.

McCain kept highlighting the conservative past with reverent references to Ronald Reagan. But at the moment, the conservative past is on trial. It represents the era Obama unmistakably wants to end.

There was a revealing exchange about midway through the debate. When asked whether Americans other than our men and women in uniform should be asked to sacrifice for the country, McCain spoke almost entirely about cutting or freezing government programs. It was a strange answer from a man whose military career was characterized by years of punishing patriotic sacrifice.

Obama caught the idealism behind the query, criticizing President Bush’s call for Americans to shop after the Sept. 11 attacks. He spoke of the need for individual energy conservation; called for expansion of service programs, including the Peace Corps; and described the hunger among young people to serve their country. McCain sounded like a legislator, Obama like a president.

A few days ago, McCain, pressing his effort to paint Obama as a strange and mysterious figure, asked: “Who is the real Barack Obama?”

The debate raised a different question: Who is the real John McCain? Is he the man who used to tout himself as a problem-solver, or is he the desperate candidate who lurches from attack to attack?

The first McCain showed up Tuesday night, insisting that our “situation today cries out for bipartisanship.” But is that the McCain who would govern? Is that the McCain who is authorizing all those attack ads? Is that the McCain we’ll see tomorrow, and the day after?

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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