|McCain was on the attack throughout the debate, although Obama held his own [AFP]
The third US presidential debate started on a polite note: "Great to see you again," John McCain, the Republican candidate, said.
"Wonderful to be part of this," said Barack Obama, the Democratic party nominee.
But the jousting quickly took on a harder edge.
McCain, trailing Obama in opinion polls, pushed back hard as Obama sought to link him to the unpopular president, George Bush.
"Senator Obama, I'm not president Bush," McCain told his rival. "If you wanted to run against Bush, you should have done it four years ago."
Obama's reply: "If I mistake your policies for George Bush's, it's because on every issue that matters, you essentially are proposing eight more years of the same thing."
On the attack
McCain was on the attack throughout the session, but Obama held his own, giving measured responses.
The toughest exchange came when the candidates were questioned about the campaign's negative tone.
"Obama has spent more money on negative ads than anyone in history," McCain told the audience at Hofstra University campus on New York's Long Island.
Obama responded: "100 per cent of your ads have been negative."
"Not true!" McCain said.
"Yes, it is true," Obama insisted.
Obama referred to angry outcries from people attending some recent rallies for McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin.
"When people in the crowd shouted 'terrorist' and 'kill him', your running mate didn't repudiate [them]," Obama told McCain.
"If people suggest I'm 'palling around with terrorists', they are not talking about the issues."
McCain defended his supporters, telling Obama: "I am proud of our crowds ... I'm not going to stand for anyone saying that people who come to my rallies are anything but great citizens.
"There have been some nasty things yelled at your rallies too and some t-shirts," he said.
Obama argued: "What we can do is disagree without characterising each other as bad people."
'Joe the plumber'
On the economy, McCain said Obama would impose painful tax hikes on middle class Americans.
Both candidates referred more than a dozen times to a voter at an Obama rally they dubbed "Joe the Plumber".
McCain told Obama: "You want to prevent Joe the plumber from achieving the American dream - that's what Joe believes."
"Maybe he's been listening to Republican ads," Obama said.
McCain had a strong and aggressive debate performance, but while Obama was often on the defensive, he made no serious mistakes.
Polls show Obama with a widening lead as the campaign enters its final stretch.
Source: Al Jazeera