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Heading into the final presidential debate of the 2008 election, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) found himself behind in the


. He needed a big victory to turn around his campaign and accordingly threw the kitchen sink, along with a plumber, at Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.) during the final face-off Wednesday night at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

However, Obama didn't flinch at McCain's attacks. He remained on firm footing and portrayed himself as a defender of the average Joe, including an undecided plumber from Toledo, Ohio.

Obama chats with "Joe the Plumber" Wurzelbacher.

How did a plumber from Ohio get such prominent mention in a key presidential debate? McCain continually used

Joe Wurzelbacher

as an example of someone against Obama's tax plan. Wurzelbacher had shown up at an Obama campaign event in Toledo on Tuesday and voiced his objection to Obama's tax plans, saying it could prevent him from buying a plumbing business.

McCain said in the debate:

"Joe wants to buy the business that he has been in for all of these years, worked 10, 12 hours a day. He wanted to buy the business, but he looked at your tax plan and he saw that he was going to pay much higher taxes. You were going to put him in a higher tax bracket, which was going to increase his taxes, which was going to cause him not to be able to employ people, which Joe was trying to realize the American dream."

Obama plans to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire. This would mean that taxpayers in the top bracket would return to paying a tax rate of 39% as they did under President Clinton. Obama tried to clear up his tax plans for voters:

"What I've said is I want to provide a tax cut for 95 percent of working Americans, 95 percent. If you make more -- if you make less than a quarter million dollars a year, then you will not see your income tax go up, your capital gains tax go up, your payroll tax. Not one dime."

So Joe the Plumber would face higher taxes only if he earned more than $250,000.

Of course, if he earned that much then he would be in exclusive company. Almost every small business owner makes much less than that and would get a tax cut under Obama's plan.

Oddly enough, McCain assailed Obama for taxing small business. He made some big promises to Joe the Plumber:

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"Now Sen. Obama talks about the very, very rich. Joe, I want to tell you, I'll not only help you buy that business that you worked your whole life for and be able -- and I'll keep your taxes low and I'll provide available and affordable health care for you and your employees."

McCain would keep income taxes lower than Obama if Joe the Plumber were to be very successful and made more than $250,000. However, it remains unclear how McCain would better help a small-business owner than Obama.

McCain has proposed no other tax cut for small businesses, according to his Web site. He has proposed cutting the corporate income tax from 35% to 25%, which won't affect most small businesses.

McCain's health care plan

would provide $5,000 for a family and $2,500 for an individual to purchase insurance, but that falls far short of the cost of a health care plan in America today.

Obama actually has several proposals aimed at helping create jobs by small businesses, including: a tax cut for jobs created by small business, a credit for small businesses to buy insurance for employees, elimination of taxes on start-ups and small businesses, and he has called for a facility to lend to small businesses hurt by the credit crisis.

McCain also attacked Obama's health care plan for penalizing small-business owners. He seemed rather surprised (in a split-screen image) to find out moments later that Obama's health care plan didn't penalize small business at all.

The exchange served as a microcosm for the entire debate. McCain would direct harsh attacks on Obama that misconstrued the record but then offered voters very little explanation of his own policies. The only clear policy McCain stands for would be lower taxes.

Of course, lower taxes have been the hallmark of economic policy for President Bush and every Republican since Ronald Reagan. Therefore, McCain has a difficult time distancing himself from Bush in this campaign. He said:

"Yes. Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I'm going to give a new direction to this economy in this country."

His strong objections to Obama's assertion he would be "eight more years of Bush" has come much too late.

Unfortunately, the debate never answered the

question the candidates need to answer

: What initiatives would they cut to provide a better fiscal future? Both candidates would increase the deficit by $200 billion a year, according to estimates.

Yet moderator Bob Schieffer let them off far too easy with half-baked talking points about spending cuts. Obama repeated his usual pay-go stance on proposals, while McCain blathered something about cutting ethanol subsidies.

McCain's efforts to attack Obama with anything and everything scored him some points in the debate. However, he never really explained specifically what he would do for the average Joe -- including Joe Wurzelbacher -- which allowed Obama to speak confidently about how he would help struggling Americans.