Facing the increasing prospect of a landslide defeat, Republican presidential nominee John McCain lashed out at Barack Obama for fomenting "class warfare" against Joe the Plumber, and of consorting with a "washed-out old terrorist" in last's night final presidential debate.
"What you want to do to Joe the Plumber" — a voter whom Mr. Obama had talked to at a recent campaign event — "and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business," Mr. McCain said.
"We're going to take Joe's money, give it to Senator Obama and let him spread the wealth around," he said. "I want Joe the Plumber to spread the wealth around … the whole premise behind Senator Obama's plans are class warfare."
In the most dramatic, and the nastiest, moment of the debate, Mr. McCain invoked Mr. Obama's past associations with former 1960s radical William Ayers and with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, a voter-registration group that the McCain campaign has been linking with Mr. Obama and which has faced accusations of voter fraud against some of its workers.
Speaking of "Mr. Ayers, I don't care about a washed-out old terrorist," Mr. McCain maintained, but "we need to know the full extent of that relationship."
And he accused ACORN of being "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."
Mr. Obama replied that he had "roundly condemned those acts" of Mr. Ayers, who is now a university professor, and maintained that "ACORN … had nothing to do with us. We were not involved," and then recited a lengthy list of distinguished citizens who were advising his campaign.
"The allegation that Senator McCain has continually made is that somehow my associations are troubling," he retorted. "… the fact that this has become some an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me."
For his part, Mr. Obama focused on trying to tie Mr. McCain to the wildly unpopular administration of President George W. Bush.
"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," he said.
"Senator Obama, I am not President Bush," Mr. McCain shot back. "If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
But for most of the evening, Mr. Obama eschewed saying anything remotely controversial, or even quotable, seeking to preserve his substantial and growing lead.
Last night's debate coincided with a spate of polls that suggest that Mr. Obama could be pulling away in this race. Both Ipsos/McClatchy and L.A. Times/Bloomberg released polls yesterday saying the gap between the Democratic and Republican candidates has widened to nine points, while a New York Times/CBS survey said Mr. Obama was ahead of Mr. McCain by 14 percentage points.
Daily tracking polls Zogby, Rasmussen and Gallup, however, reported a stable race, with Mr. Obama enjoying a lead of between 4 and 7 per cent.
That's enough for some commentators to declare the race all but over.
"You are more likely to be killed by a meteor dropping on your head than McCain becoming president," Michael McDonald, who specializes in polls and election number-crunching at Virginia's George Mason University, told the Guardian News Service.
The conservative Evans-Novak Political Reported predicted yesterday that "an Electoral College landslide is in the offing, paired with Democratic tsunamis in congressional races."
And the Intrade predictions market is giving Mr. Obama an 82-per-cent chance of winning the election, with Mr. McCain given a 17-per-cent chance of victory.
As Mr. McCain demonstrated last night, the Republicans are increasingly focusing their efforts on the controversy involving ACORN. The group has signed up 1.3 million new voters, many of them young, poor and/or minorities. But some of its 13,000 recruiters in 21 states appear to have invented voters, registered voters more than once, or recruited the deceased.
Election officials in Ohio and elsewhere have launched investigations into possible voter-registration fraud.
The ACORN abuse has exercised Republicans, who claim the left may be trying to steal the election.
"This election now has been tainted by something that is just plain wrong," John Danforth, a former Missouri senator and ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters.
"We believe that this is a potential nightmare," he said. "The issue could be whether it is fair at all and whether the losing side believes it has been fairly defeated or it has been cheated."
As yet, however, there is no indication that Mr. McCain's attempts to link Mr. Obama to Mr. Ayers or to possible ACORN abuses, have paid off.
Instead, they may have harmed the GOP. A New York Times/CBS poll released yesterday said six out of 10 voters thought Mr. McCain spent more time attacking his opponent than explaining his position on the issues. The same proportion of voters thought Mr. Obama had spent more time explaining than attacking.
Whatever the effectiveness of the Republican strategy, the debates have unquestionably influenced the direction of the campaign. After each of the previous two debates, polls showed that most voters thought Mr. Obama had outperformed Mr. McCain, and Mr. Obama's overall popularity kicked up a notch.