Stephanopoulos: Why No Ayers Attack?

ABC News' George Stephanopoulos reports: One thing we didn't hear in last night's debate was John McCain launch the kind of personal attacks against Barack Obama that the McCain campaign has been telegraphing would come.

On the campaign trail in recent days Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has sought to tie Obama to 1960s radical William Ayers.

Both campaigns were prepared for a personal attack during the debate from McCain, who is trailing Obama is most national and battleground polls with 27 days to go before Election Day.

But then -- nothing. The worst McCain gave was to reference Obama as "that one" during an exchange over Obama's vote on an energy bill -- not a compelling attack.

This tells us that McCain is worried that if he goes to hard against Obama in the last days before the election, he thinks it might backfire. McCain may be worried about coming off as too bitter or too angry and leaving voters with that lasting impression from the debates. 

The fact that McCain's campaign warned reporters to expect McCain to go on the attack, but then he didn't, is an admission that the McCain campaign doesn't really believe it's going to work.

Right now, McCain is in a box. Obama holds the momentum in this race with President George W. Bush's approval ratings at a historic low, people yearning for change, and a fiscal crisis the likes of which Americans haven't seen since the Great Depression. Obama is outspending McCain 3 to 1 in television ads in many of the battleground states.

Obama's calm demeanor in these debates and the way he handled the bailout bill may be helping him solidify his lead, with more Americans now saying he is better able to handle the economic crisis.

There was nothing that McCain said last night that’s going to change the nature of this race.

The Democratic presidential contender has also done a good job in these last two debates of addressing the questions Americans have had with whether or not he's ready to serve as president.

Going forward, McCain has to try to erode Obama's lead in the polls, but he doesn't want to turn off Americans who are genuinely concerned right now about the economy.

So far this is Obama's race to lose if the polls are giving up an accurate picture. However we've learned in recent presidential contests that the polls aren't always right.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart has made perhaps the most compelling point about what we don't know from the polls. He argues the polls may not be accurately capturing the young people that don't reliably show up to vote but may turnout this time for Obama and the expected dramatic gains in African American voter turnout. But the polls may also not be telling us about the voters who will be held back from voting for Obama because of race, but won't admit it.

Go to George's complete presidential debate report card.

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