Joe Wurzelbacher is now the most famous plumber in the history of American politics since Watergate.

Starting with the very first question of tonight’s debate, John McCain drew upon the name of the plumber who asked Obama about his small business tax plan in an effort to hammer home the message that Barack Obama would increase taxes on middle class Americans and small businesses. He talked about Joe the Plumber when they talked about taxes. He talked about Joe the Plumber when they talked about health care. Heck, I was almost expecting him to raise Joe when they started talking about abortion.

It was perhaps the best, and worst, example of a pre-scripted talking point that I’ve seen in a long time.

Obviously, McCain was trying to connect with middle America and convince them that Barack Obama woud raise their taxes, eviscerate their health care, and god knows what he would do to the nation’s plumbing system.

The problem is that the more McCain mentioned it, the more it came across as an obvious gimmick.

Based on his comments on Fox News, it’s clear that McCain can probably count on Joe the Plumber’s vote.

The question, though, is whether McCain did anything tonight that will turn the race around.

I think it’s clear that he didn’t.

McCain’s best moment came early in the debate when, in response to yet another Obama comment linking McCain to the Bush Administration, he looked Obama in the eye and said “I’m not President Bush” and suggested that if he wanted to run against Bush, he was four years too late. Beyond that, though, what we saw tonight was the same weak, sometimes slick but mostly just tired, John McCain that we saw in the past two debates.

Surprisingly, moderator Bob Schieffer actually brought up the issue of the negative tone of the campaign, and that gave McCain an opportunity to step into the Bill Ayers trap, an opportunity that he jumped at with more enthusiasm than I expected. While McCain repeated the same Republican party line about Ayers and Obama that we’ve heard for two weeks now, Obama did a pretty good job of both deflecting the attack and showing McCain to be desperate for even making it.

But that was about the end of the fireworks. As the night wore on, the candidates touched on health care, education, the Supreme Court, and even abortion. For the most part, though, their responses were right out of stump speeches.

The major headline coming out of this debate will be fairly simple — John McCain failed to do anything tonight to change the tone of this debate, he failed to do anything to convince the public that he would be a better steward of the economy, and he failed completely in any effort to raise any doubts about the character or readiness of his opponent.

There are twenty days to go. The poll numbers will fluctuate along with the headlines, as will the polls in individual battleground states. However, it’s fairly clear after tonight that the trend that started in mid-September with Barack Obama taking the lead will continue and that Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States.

Politics Barack, John, and Joe The Plumber: Reacting To the Final Debate