HEMPSTEAD, New York (CNN) -- John McCain came out of the gate strong, but Barack Obama gained strength as the night progressed Wednesday in the final presidential debate where each candidate tried to convince voters that he is better equipped to steer the nation through these troubled times.
For McCain, the final result of the debate is not great news. When the sun rises Thursday morning, very little will have changed in the race for the White House.
Obama is leading in national polls as well as in key battleground states. McCain faces a financial deficit in these closing days where expensive television advertising will play a key role in helping the candidates deliver their closing arguments.
A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. Poll of debate watchers surveyed after the 90-minute match-up thought Obama did a better job than McCain by a wide margin, 58 percent to 31 percent. iReport.com: Who do you think won the debate
While McCain was more assertive and clearer in stating his policies in this debate than in the two previous head-to-head meetings, the Republican nominee did not deliver a "game changer" needed to turn momentum back towards his direction. Watch entire debate: Part 1 » | Part 2 » | Part 3 »
With 19 days remaining until Election Day, it is still very plausible for the race to turn McCain's way. He has stared down defeat before -- remember summer 2007 -- and went onto victory, but it will be a challenge.
The focus of the debate was domestic policy, a fitting topic given that the Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted 733 points earlier in the day -- the second biggest one-day point loss ever.
During this final nationally televised debate, McCain and Obama clashed over taxes, healthcare, abortion and Issue No. 1: the economy.
However, some of the sharpest exchanges between the two opponents came as Obama repeatedly tried to link McCain to President Bush and McCain doggedly called Obama's character into question.
McCain sought to defuse one of Obama's main campaign talking points by distancing himself from the president and, in doing so, probably delivered his best line of the night.
"Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush," McCain said to Obama after the Democratic nominee again linked McCain to Bush on the issue of the economy. "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." Watch McCain say he's no Bush »
However, McCain's message did not resonate with a majority of the debate watchers surveyed by CNN, who said Obama would better handle the financial crisis, 56 percent to 35 percent. The poll of 620 adult Americans had a sampling error of plus or minus 4 points. The sample of debate-watchers in the CNN poll was just slightly more Democratic than the electorate as a whole.
On the issue of character, McCain condemned Obama for opting out of the presidential public financing system, his failure to "repudiate" Georgia Rep. John Lewis for alleging the McCain campaign was engaging in hateful speech, and insisted his opponent fully explain his dealings and relationships with ACORN and Weather Underground founder William Ayers. Obama handled each one of issues smoothly, if not fully.
In turn, Obama criticized McCain alleging that "100 percent ... of your ads ... have been negative." The McCain campaign immediately disputed the claim.
The real winner of Wednesday's debate is probably Joe Wurzelbacher, an Ohio plumber who is about to purchase a plumbing company. Wurzelbacher recently expressed concern to Obama during a campaign stop that the Democrat's tax plan would hurt him. Watch Wurzelbacher talk with Obama »
McCain brought the story up during the debate, which led to several mentions by both candidates of "Joe the Plumber," who quickly came to symbolize Middle America.
Joe's phone is probably ringing off the hook today, so maybe he is not the real winner.