It’s hard to believe that the last debate (hurrah!) in this long and winding and extraordinary election has just ended .

The pundits were out of the gate–even before the two spouses, in red and blue, bounded onto the stage — peddling their wares and opinions. Who won? Was it a game-changer for McCain? (Note to pundits: Could we abolish that term? Elections are not games.) No. Some argued that McCain won the first quarter. But by halftime, punditocrats brayed in virtual unison that it seemed as if McCain needed anger management therapy.

“Obama on the defensive” was another favorite pundit theme. It is true that given the opportunity to skewer McCain/ Palin’s demagogic 100 percent negative ads and rallies– the ones that have incited ugly and hate-filled xenophobia at a time of metastasizing economic pain–Obama chose to stay cool, sober and cautious. (McCain’s defense of those rallies, and his vile attacks on civil rights leader and American hero, now Congressman John Lewis, exposed the dark twists and turns of a man who once denounced gutter tactics. He now condones them.) It’s pretty clear –as one observer noted–that Obama’s strategy is “dare to be boring.” He played a safe game tonight.

McCain, on the other hand, flailed and revealed a kind of manic desperation . He had one punchy line: “I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run to run against him, you should have run four years ago.” But how far does one punchline take “No More Mr. Maverick.” McCain is more right and wrong than Bush on core principles and issues–from Iraq, Iran, North Korea ( he protested taking it off the axis of evil list) and Russia and he has pandered to a Republican right-wing base on energy, on immigration, and tax cuts for the most wealthy. He’s even capitulated —though Obama failed to point this out in tonight’s debate–on the CIA’S use of torture.

The false populist invocation of Joe the Plumber was McCain’s attempt at a Reaganesque move. Hey, I am happy that a working man out of Toledo, Ohio got his 15 minutes of fame on network and cable TV. But McCain is no Reagan and it is no longer morning in America (if it ever was). And Obama was smart and nimble when he decided to speak directly to Joe–and explain how McCain was distorting his tax and healthcare plans.

At a time when the collapse of the markets has left conservatism in rubble and market fundamentalism in freefall is it any wonder that, as Harold Meyerson pointed out in his Washington Post column Wednesday, “a disoriented John McCain is wandering the moors howling about Bill Ayers?” McCain’s attacks on Ayers and ACORN were jerky and disjointed. (And it was hysterical for McCain to assert that ACORN was “perpetrating the greatest voter fraud in US history.” As The Nation‘s Ari Berman blogged yesterday, “McCain and his Republican allies continue to make a big stink about voter fraud in an attempt to cover-up their own efforts at voter suppression…..A new report by blogger Ari Rabin-Havt documents, “nearly a quarter of John MCain’s ‘Clean Election and Voter Fraud Committee’ chaired by Warren Rudman and John Danforth, have been involved in GOP voter suppression efforts or unfounded partisan claims of voter fraud.” What’s really at work is GOP panic about enormous Democratic (minority) turnout and a preemptive move to discredit the legitimacy and integrity of the election’s outcome.)

Trying to change the subject is a tactic that’s missed its moment. The McCain camp’s full-frontal, cynical attempts to make this an election not about issues, or to make this a referendum on national security and patriotism have been washed away by hard and fast reality: a financial crisis that includes some 10,000 foreclosures a day, nationalized banks and Washington Post cover stories with headlines like , ” The End of American Capitalism?”

Two final thoughts. Thank god this is the last debate. We have been treated to some of the most trivial questioning and bad moderators in the recent history of Presidential debates. Tonight, like his two predecessors in the general election debates, CBS’s Bob Schieffer parroted the suffocating establishment consensus: How, in these times of financial crisis, will you tighten the government’s belt? Obama stuck to “prioritizing”–with healthy nods to the need to rebuild and reinvest in America. McCain gleefully, almost maniacally, talked of class warfare and freezes and hatchets and cuts and more cuts. And those accursed earmarks which he seems to believe are the main budget-busters. (Obama, fortunately, was quick to point out that earmarks are .5 percent of the total federal budget.)

But the premise of this entire debate, as The Nation pointed out in our lead editorial last week, is “quite simply nuts.” The fetish about budget-balancing has become especially nutso with our economy headed for a severe recession. With banks halting lending, businesses laying off workers, state and local governments slashing services and cutting jobs, homeowners facing mass evictions, and consumers cutting back, a massive federal stimulus is critical to avoid economic pain and calamity. We have to end our deficit paranoia. Pragmatism and reality –not ideology–are driving forces right now.

And while Obama was sober, serious and cautious tonight–okay, even flat at times–I felt there were some moments when he spoke with care and muted passion. One came when Obama explained why he would not support a free trade agreement with Colombia. He spoke of Colombian labor leaders who had been targeted without prosecution. “We have to stand for human rights and stand against violence being perpetrated against workers just standing for their rights.” And then Obama spoke of the real life consequences of Supreme Court decisions–in this case the story of Lilly Ledbetter and her fight, on behalf of all women, for equal pay for equal work. John McCain dismissed her case as just a “trial lawyer’s dream.”

It will take the people, the voters, the movements Obama has mobilized, aroused and energized in this extraordinary election to hold him accountable –and to push him to be bolder. Reality will also drive him to be bolder –if he wants to succeed. It can be done. What can’t be done is getting blood from a stone. Tonight, McCain showed himseld to be a mean, petty, out of touch man who is ill-suited to lead a nation in these perilous times.