- 16 Oct 08, 02:39 PM GMT
LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK: Annoyingly, I couldn't find any plumbers called Joe hanging around outside Hofstra University, the setting for 2008's final presidential debate. I did, however, talk to voters who felt that the duel had, for once, risen to the occasion.
I'd been disappointed by the two previous encounters between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. In Oxford, I felt they had done little more than restate well-established positions; Nashville was, for me at least, a bit of a wash-out.
It wasn't always easy to gauge from the partisan crowds of Republicans and Democrats (mostly Democrats, this being New York State) crowding the bars around the campus.
But in between the whoops and the chants that punctuated each point, it sounded the candidates were, for the first time, being encouraged by the moderator to engage with each other's positions - on education, health care, abortion - rather that just recite their well-rehearsed scripts. I also thoroughly enjoyed the mudslinging over who had slung the most mud, a timely riposte to the old adage that Americans don't do irony.
But who cared what I thought? I don't even get to vote here. So I kept my opinions to myself and quickly canvassed spectators' reactions.
Noy Sayouthnasad, at least, was in a cheerful post-debate mood. A McCain supporter, the 32-year-old research administrator been left disappointed by the previous encounters; until tonight, she'd felt that her man hadn't been aggressive enough, hadn't hit Obama sufficiently hard over Bill Ayres and Pastor Wright.
But now she sounded buoyant. Her man had done enough, she hoped, to revive his lagging fortunes in the polls.
"It was just what I was hoping for," she grinned. "He was more charismatic, he attacked Obama about his associations and his record.
"Before, I felt he needed to be tougher. Now, I'm hoping that he'll only be maybe two or three points behind in the next polls.
"Oh, I liked Joe the Plumber too," she added. "It was a good way of connecting with people, of showing that he's the guy to connect with their problems."
Chris Carr, 30, rolled his eyes when I mentioned McCain's recurring motif. The website creative director was biased, he acknowledged, having already made up his mind to vote for Obama. But all the references by the Republican nominee to this one tradesman had, Chris felt, sounded clichéd and patronising.
"To be honest with you, I expect Obama will increase his lead after tonight," Chris said.
"McCain sounded angry to me: he kept personalising the arguments. But Obama came across as presidential, going into detail on his policies."
With polling day getting closer, and the partisan atmosphere growing increasingly fierce, I wondered if there were any more undecided voters left in America.
I came across one, anyway - Pat Montagano, 48, from Queens. In between working as an administrator at the University, she'd been weighing up how to cast her ballot.
Tonight's debate hadn't helped her much.
"When they were asked about their Vice Presidential nominees, I thought Obama did much better," she said.
"But I liked what McCain was saying on education. I don't know," she shrugged, "I will vote. I'll make up my mind before 4 November."
She won't have any more debates to help her with this, however. Somehow, I think both she and American democracy will cope.
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