Debating on a night when global markets were tanking, Barack Obama and John McCain engaged in an edgy debate about “spreading the wealth,” “class warfare” and creating an economy that benefits “Joe the Plumber” more than “Ivan the Investment Banker.”

But while McCain clung to the failed fantasies of the past, Obama offered America a community rarely served up on the presidential debate stages of recent campaigns: realism.

Though they differed, at times viscerally, both men were struggling to occupy a populist high ground that suddenly appears far more attractive than the valleys of Wall Street.

The Republican kicked things off by declaring, “Americans are hurting right now, and they’re angry. They’re hurting, and they’re angry. They’re innocent victims of greed and excess on Wall Street and as well as Washington, D.C. And they’re angry, and they have every reason to be angry.”

The Democrat echoed the theme. “I think everybody understands at this point that we are experiencing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And the financial rescue plan that Sen. McCain and I supported is an important first step. And I pushed for some core principles: making sure that taxpayer can get their money back if they’re putting money up. Making sure that CEOs are not enriching themselves through this process,” explained Obama. “And I think that it’s going to take some time to work itself out. But what we haven’t yet seen is a rescue package for the middle class. Because the fundamentals of the economy were weak even before this latest crisis.”

Not since 1912, when Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Progressive Teddy Roosevelt and even Republican William Howard Taft all tried to steal some of the thunder of Socialist Eugene Victor Debs have major-party presidential candidates scrambled so furiously to sound populist themes on the cusp of a definitional election.

But behind, beneath and beside the rhetorical flourishes were the evidences of a fundamental difference in approach.

McCain clung to the fading vision of Reaganomics as seen through the lens of George Bush, defaulting again and again to a lexicon of tax cuts for the richest, empty promises of trickle-down prosperity, fantasies of spending freezes and the certainty of deeper deficits and greater dysfunction in a federal government.

For McCain, ultimately, it was all about those tax cuts — for plumber Joe Wurzelbacher in Ohio who wants to start a small business and, though he did not mention it, for corporations that earn more in a quarter than the GDPs of more than a few sovereign nations.

“The whole premise behind Sen. Obama’s plans are class warfare, let’s spread the wealth around. I want small businesses — and by the way, the small businesses that we’re talking about would receive an increase in their taxes right now,” growled McCain. “Who — why would you want to increase anybody’s taxes right now?”

Obama chose to respond as an adult.

“I want to cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans. Now, it is true that my friend and supporter, Warren Buffett, for example, could afford to pay a little more in taxes… in order to give additional tax cuts to Joe the plumber before he was at the point where he could make $250,000,” the Democrat began.

“Then,” he continued, “Exxon Mobil, which made $12 billion, record profits, over the last several quarters, they can afford to pay a little more so that ordinary families who are hurting out there — they’re trying to figure out how they’re going to afford food, how they’re going to save for their kids’ college education, they need a break.

“So, look, nobody likes taxes. I would prefer that none of us had to pay taxes, including myself. But ultimately, we’ve got to pay for the core investments that make this economy strong and somebody’s got to do it.”

McCain sputtered back: “Nobody likes taxes. Let’s not raise anybody’s taxes. OK?”

“Well,” Obama replied. “I don’t mind paying a little more.”

In less serious times, that might have been a risky statement.

But Obama was no Walter Mondale apologizing for addressing fiscal realities.

The Democrat did make a class distinction, and in so doing he made the connection that more apologetic Democrats had failed to find in past campaigns.

“I think tax policy is a major difference between Sen. McCain and myself. And we both want to cut taxes, the difference is who we want to cut taxes for,” explained the senator from Illinois.

“Now, Sen. McCain, the centerpiece of his economic proposal is to provide $200 billion in additional tax breaks to some of the wealthiest corporations in America. Exxon Mobil, and other oil companies, for example, would get an additional $4 billion in tax breaks,” Obama continued. “What I’ve said is I want to provide a tax cut for 95 percent of working Americans, 95 percent. 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. And 95 percent of working families, 95 percent of you out there, will get a tax cut. In fact, independent studies have looked at our respective plans and have concluded that I provide three times the amount of tax relief to middle-class families than Sen. McCain does.”

The candidates displayed differences on issues that really do matter — and, of course, on issues that didn’t matter.

Obama and McCain were steered, briefly, into an empty “tone-of-the-campaign” debate by moderator Bob Schieffer.

McCain initially eschewed Schieffer’s invitation to mouth the William Ayers-ACORN-appeasement blather that has been such a staple of his campaign in recent weeks. Instead, McCain accused Obama of spending “unprecedented amounts of money on negative ads about me.” Obama reminded McCain that “100 percent of your ads are negative.”

Finally, after a torturous back-and-forth about “hurt feelings,” McCain dropped the bomb but missed the target. So the candidates wasted a few minutes on a sixties-radical-turned-college-professor named Ayers and a community-organization named ACORN.

But it was such a deviation that even McCain veered out of a convoluted riff on Ayers — “it’s not the fact that Sen. Obama chooses to associate with a guy who in 2001 said that he wished he had have bombed more, and he had a long association with him. It’s the fact that… all of the details need to be known about Sen. Obama’s relationship with them and with ACORN and the American people will make a judgment” — to essentially acknowledge the absurdity of the discussion.

“And my campaign is about getting this economy back on track, about creating jobs, about a brighter future for America,” McCain suddenly declared, pulling the brakes on the associated-with-terrorists talk. “And that’s what my campaign is about and I’m not going to raise taxes the way Sen. Obama wants to raise taxes in a tough economy. And that’s really what this campaign is going to be about.

The debate was back on the economic track — and headed in a direction that allowed Obama to be the adult.

As the candidates sparred over health care, education, funding for programs for children with special needs and a host of other essential issues, the Democrat kept steering the discussion toward reality.

Both candidates talked about what they wanted to do.

While McCain imagined a world of tax cuts and free money, Obama allowed as how the economic Easter Bunny that Reagan and Bush promised was just around the corner might not be coming.

When McCain hailed his vice president running-mate’s commitment to helping children with special needs and promised to help them, Obama responded, “I think it’s very commendable the work she’s done on behalf of special needs. I agree with that, John.”

But, he added, “I do want to just point out that (children with) autism, for example, or other special needs will require some additional funding, if we’re going to get serious in terms of research. That is something that every family that advocates on behalf of disabled children talk about. And if we have an across-the-board spending freeze, we’re not going to be able to do it. That’s an example of, I think, the kind of use of the scalpel that we want to make sure that we’re funding some of those programs.”

McCain offered America an old fantasy now discredited.

Obama offered America the promise of realism and a warning that, “(The) biggest risk we could take right now is to adopt the same failed policies and the same failed politics that we’ve seen over the last eight years and somehow expect a different result.”

That was not the happy talk of the past.

But these are not happy times.

For those who want to wait around for the Easter Bunny, McCain made the proper appeal.

For those who figure it’s time to get real, Obama was the only serious candidate on the stage.