The moment of truth in Wednesday evening’s debate came when Bob Schieffer asked the candidates if they would be willing to repeat, face to face, some of the personal charges they have made against each other in their ads and on the trail.

At first, John McCain flinched. Instead of answering directly, he suggested, remarkably, that it was Barack Obama who was running the more negative campaign. Polls show that this is certainly not the impression of voters. They see McCain as the negative guy.

But eventually McCain launched the attack everyone was waiting for, referring to Obama’s relationship with Bill Ayers, the ’60s radical with whom Obama served on a Chicago education board that also included Republican members. Obama calmly noted that his relationship with Ayers was limited and that Ayers would play no role in an Obama administration.

McCain was wound up, and before he was done, he made the astonishing claim that some fraudulent voter registrations obtained by ACORN — that’s the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — constituted “one of the greatest frauds in voter history” and were “maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” Gosh, I didn’t know our democratic fabric was so frail.

Ayers, ACORN and Joe the Plumber were the stars of McCain’s desperate effort in the third and final presidential debate to revive a candidacy that has been on the skids ever since the economic crisis hit. (Joe, whose last name is Wurzelbacher and who runs a plumbing business in Ohio, confronted Obama recently at a campaign stop because he didn’t like the idea that Obama would raise his taxes. He’s become a hero on some conservative Web sites.)

This trio of attacks almost certainly did McCain good among those whose votes he already has: very conservative Republicans who share Joe’s view that Obama is some kind of socialist. But it’s unlikely that McCain helped himself much with the moderate and middle-class voters who have drifted away from him. He failed to rattle the ever-calm Obama. And it’s hard to see that anything McCain said repaired the damage done to his campaign by the economic crisis and his handling of it. The instant polls gave the round to Obama.

Going into the debate, McCain was in a kind of strategic gridlock. To make the campaign a contest once again, he must arouse new doubts about Obama. But by hammering Obama, McCain seems only to be undercutting his own image. This Catch-22 renders his task Herculean. McCain must get voters to see him as steadier, more positive and more likable — even as he makes his assaults on Obama stick.

This will not be easy in the coming weeks, as Wednesday’s performance suggested. A New York Times-CBS News poll released on the eve of the debate found that McCain’s favorable ratings had slipped badly since mid-September. Then, McCain was viewed favorably by 44 percent of respondents and unfavorably by 37 percent. Now, the balance is 36 percent positive and 41 percent negative. In the same period, Obama’s net positive ratings have only risen.

The poll asked voters if their opinion of McCain had changed for the better or for the worse in “the past couple of weeks.” Only 7 percent said their view had changed in a positive direction; 21 percent said it had moved in a negative direction. Nearly a quarter of those who said their view of McCain had worsened cited his attacks on Obama as the reason for their change of heart; a fifth mentioned his selection of Sarah Palin as running mate.

What’s striking about the past month is that the great American middle has shifted Obama’s way. Recent polls by The Post and ABC News, Gallup and Pew suggest that Obama’s gains since mid-September have been especially large among whites, particularly white men, and also among independents and moderates. At this crucial juncture, the contours of the 2008 contest are remarkably similar to those of the 2006 midterm elections that ended with a Democratic victory. Strikingly — and no doubt unintentionally — McCain echoed the Democrats’ 2006 campaign theme when he said that voters want the country to move in “a new direction.” That’s McCain’s problem.

McCain tried hard Wednesday to paint Obama as a big-spending liberal who hangs around with radicals. But ideology may matter less to voters this year than temperament, and in this downturn, conservatism may be even more suspect than liberalism. In assailing Obama from the right, McCain may only have deepened the problems he already has.

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

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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