HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. Debates should not be confused with trips to Lourdes: Few miracles are dispensed.
John McCain needed a miracle in his final debate with Barack Obama on Wednesday night, a miracle that would wipe away McCain's deficit in the polls and re-energize his flagging campaign.
He did not get one. The clouds did not part. Heavenly choirs were not heard. Instead, the American public heard angry attacks from McCain.
Sometimes McCain attacked directly, and sometimes he attacked sarcastically, but he never stopped attacking. And he never rattled Obama. Obama answered every attack and kept his cool.
How cool? Obama was so cool that after 90 minutes under blazing TV lights, an ice cube wouldn't have melted on his forehead.
McCain attacked him on everything from wanting to raise the taxes of Joe the Plumber - - now the most famous plumber in America and at serious risk of becoming so wealthy his taxes will go up no matter who wins to not traveling enough.
"I admire so much Sen. Obama's eloquence," McCain sneered. "Sen. Obama, who has never traveled south of our border." (This from a man whose running mate got her first passport last year.)
But McCain didn't just attack, he also defended, including defending those people who attend his rallies and the rallies of Sarah Palin who have shouted nasty and threatening things when Obama's name is mentioned.
"Let me say categorically that I am proud of the people who come to my rallies," McCain said. "I am not going to stand for anybody saying that the people who come to our rallies are anything other than patriotic citizens."
Obama responded to all this what else? coolly.
"I don't mind being attacked for the next three weeks," Obama said. "What the American people can't afford is four more years of failed economic policies."
He never got off his game plan. He never got shook up.
The biggest impact of the three presidential debates for Obama was not anything said or not said. It was impressionistic: Obama simply did not appear to be the scary "other" that McCain needs him to be. "When people suggest that I pal around with terrorists, then we are not talking about issues," Obama said smoothly.
For McCain, the biggest impact of the debates was visual: In the first debate he refused to look at Obama, in the second debate McCain appeared to careen around the stage and in this last debate McCain would scribble furiously with his Sharpie as Obama was talking or else smirk in response to what Obama was saying.
Moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS often asked provocative questions that sometimes did not get provocative responses. When Schieffer asked each man why the country would be better off if his running mate became president rather than the other guy's running mate, Obama said Joe Biden "shares my core values." John McCain said Sarah Palin is a "reformer" and "she has united our party."
And McCain's desire to keep his party united behind him because who else is? was very much on his mind, dipping deep into conservative Republican talking points. McCain repeatedly accused Obama of "wanting to spread the wealth" around, which doesn't seem like all that bad an idea to people who aren't wealthy.
But there was one place McCain would not go: He did not bring up the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. It is a line McCain seems determined not to cross, even though some in his party are urging him to do so.
What McCain really needed is what he still needs: for Obama to make some huge gaffe, something that makes Obama look like the riskier choice between the two.
But Obama made no such gaffes Wednesday night.
"The biggest risk we could take right now is to adopt the same failed policies and same failed politics that we've seen for the last eight years," Obama said.
The race is not over. It would be wrong to write McCain off. After all, there is still almost three weeks to go. And in politics, anything can happen.
It usually doesn't, however.