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Joe the plumber arrives too late to save John McCain

Questions over tax-paying record and qualifications of Republican 'secret weapon'

By David Usborne in Toledo, Ohio

The plumber who became the accidental star of Wednesday's third and last presidential debate ducked behind the closed curtains of his modest suburban home near Toledo, Ohio, last night after a torrent of media attention raised unexpected questions about his qualifications and even his tax-paying record.

Launching multiple attacks on his opponent at the debate at Hofstra University in New York, a notably scrappy John McCain repeatedly evoked the plumber, Joe Wurzelbacher, whom Mr Obama met walking the streets of a suburb of Toledo, campaigning door-to-door, last Sunday. In all, his name was mentioned more than two dozen times, directing the gaze of an entire nation on his bungalow.

Mr McCain was under pressure at the debate to change the contours of a race that, according to national and state-level polls, remains heavily tilted in favour of Barack Obama. Once on set, he quickly opened fire, accusing the Democrat variously of spending record amounts on negative advertising, supporting abortion-rights extremists and pursuing tax policies that would lead to "class warfare".

It was Mr Wurzelbach, 34, who emerged as Mr McCain's secret weapon, however, and by turn, the new pin-up boy for every tax-loathing, card-holding Republican in the land.

Mr Wurzelbach, with his shaven head and wide shoulders, was one of many voters who shook hands with Mr Obama on Sunday, when the Senator showed up out of the blue on Shrewsbury Street, in the Toledo suburb of Holland, where he lives.

The two men talked and Mr Wurzelbacher had time to voice the fear to Mr Obama that his tax policies may stymie his purported interest in buying the plumbing business he works for. The brief exchange was caught on video by Fox TV. By Monday it had been seized on by conservative radio commentators. Soon, Mr Wurzelbacher was on Fox shows and juggling invitations to McCain rallies.

It was perhaps inevitable that Mr McCain would bring him up on Wednesday, therefore. Whether the tactic – and the newly pugilistic demeanour – worked for him was not clear. While aggression was what many Republicans had been looking for from the Arizona senator, he risked crossing a line between forceful and unflatteringly ferocious. And, as before, the medium did him few favours, as the cameras caught his various ticks – the blinking and the up-and-down of his eyebrows.

"I'm being taxed more and more for fulfilling the American dream," were the first words from Mr Wurzelbacher's mouth to Mr Obama on his street. The Democrat responded to him: "It's not that I want to punish your success. I just want to make sure that everybody that is behind you, that they have a chance for success, too. I think that when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." Herein lurks a real and fundamental philosophical difference between the candidates. "Spreading the wealth around" sounds good to Democrats. To Republicans it sounds scarier than Hallowe'en and close to socialism. The question on 4 November will be which side the voters end up deciding to take.

Sudden celebrity, meanwhile, was quickly showing a darker side to Mr Wurzelbacher, who started yesterday by giving a flurry of interviews by satellite in his home to breakfast television anchors in New York and by appearing before the more than two-dozen reporters, photographers and cameramen who had showed up to flatten the grass on his front lawn in the presence of two, over-sized, pumpkins.

By the afternoon, however, he was nowhere to be seen. It was not clear whether this had something to do with a reported deal with Fox News – he is due to fly to New York today to be interviewed by the former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee – or because of the unflattering revelations suddenly spreading across the internet. Questions were raised on several sites, for instance, about apparent gaps in his tax-paying record. Never mind whether someone might raise them one day.

"He has seen the blogs and he is not too happy," said Jon Stainbrook, chairman of the local Republican Party who stepped on the lawn shortly after lunch, apparently now appointed to act as Mr Wurzelbacher's spokesman. It was not just bloggers but also The New York Times, however, reporting that America's most famous plumber, who apparently had aspirations to buy out his employer, lacked a plumber's licence and membership of the plumber's union.

Mr Stainbrook said Mr Wurzelbacher had no regrets about what he had said before, either to Mr Obama or the media. "He is in fabulous spirits," he insisted, but said he was "feeling a little overwhelmed and needs his space". Mr Wurzelbacher had received more than a thousand phone calls, he added. None of those, by the way, came from the McCain camp, either before the debate or after it. With family members trailing in and out of his home, The Independent asked Mr Wurzelbacher for an interview. He declined, saying: "I love London. I would love to get over there, but no."

Brittany Crandall, 23, who lives in a similar, one-floor home with a pumpkin scarecrow just a few doors down, has never met Mr Wurzelbacher, but she felt he was being unfairly treated. "He is just an ordinary person, let him be," she said, opening the door for a New York journalist to use her internet connection. "I just don't understand what the fuss is about."

But as the evening drew in, her husband, Dan, 26, wheeled out his barbecue and began cooking hotdogs to feed the crowd of journalists camped outside, selling them for $2 each.

While Mr McCain had seemed almost on a roll in the opening moments of Wednesday's debate, his repeated references to the "Joe the Plumber" and a demeanour that seemed increasingly agitated and discombobulated may have lost him some viewer and voter sympathy. The usual instant polls gave the night to the Democrat by a mile. According to CNN, Mr Obama won it by 58 per cent to 31 per cent.

Nonetheless, Mr McCain and his advisers may still hope Mr Wurzelbacher can emerge in the final stretch of the campaign as a symbol of everything they say is wrong with Mr Obama's tax blueprint and, more importantly, as an ordinary man whom voters will identify with. Not Joe Six Pack but Joe U-Bend.

Thus, Mr McCain was again evoking Mr Wurzelbacher on the stump in Pennsylvania yesterday. "Senator Obama told Joe that he wanted to spread his wealth around. America didn't become the greatest nation on earth by spreading the wealth; we became the greatest nation by creating new wealth," he said.

For his part, Mr Obama was in New York, warning supporters not to take anything for granted even though the polls show him stretching his lead. "We are 19 days away from changing this country – 19 days. But, for those who are getting a little cocky, I've got two words for you: New Hampshire. I learned right here that you can't let up or pay too much attention to the polls," he said. "I've been in these positions before when we were favoured and the press starts getting carried away. And we end up getting spanked."

In the interviews earlier yesterday, Mr Wurzelbacher conceded that he was "not even close" to earning the $250,000 that would put him in a higher tax bracket if Mr Obama becomes president. Thus the entire notion of his buying the business seemed bogus. He did grasp the nonsense of his star status.

"You know, I'm a flash in the pan. I'm not a mega-star, I'm not Matt Damon," he told a news conference. He added: "Right now I'm just flabbergasted. I just hope I'm not making too much of a fool of myself."

Beyond the plumber exchanges on Wednesday, Mr McCain excoriated Mr Obama for trying to connect him to President George Bush. "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush," he exploded. "If you wanted to run against President Bush you should have run four years ago. I will take this country in a new direction."

But Mr Obama, cool arguably to the point of tedium, hit straight back. "If I've occasionally mistaken your policies for George Bush's policies, it's because on the core economic issues that matter – on tax policy, on energy policy, on spending priorities – you have been a vigorous supporter of President Bush," he said.

And, were all the journalists heeding the advice of Mr Stainbrook to give up their vigil outside Joe the Plumber's house as the sun began to dip last night? Of course they weren't. We weren't.

Joe the plumber In his own words

On the United States:

"I'm tired of people downing America. We're the greatest country in the world. Stop apologising for it. I'm not sorry for being an American, for having the things I have."

On social security:

"[It's] a joke. Let me take my money and invest it as I please."

On the presidential debate:

"McCain came across with some solid points. I was real happy about that."

On his fame:

"I'm a flash in the pan. I'm not a megastar. Right now I'm just completely flabbergasted."

On who will get his vote:

"I'm not telling anybody anything."

On Iraq:

"I'm not sorry that we're in Iraq. What we have done over there is an incredible, incredible thing. Has it kept us safe? Absolutely."

On being a plumber:

"I hope I have a lot of jobs today. Yesterday, I worked on a water main break for a gas station and I was muddy and soaking wet."

Voters' thoughts

Today, The Independent reader panel chews over the third and final debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. With the election less than three weeks away, who came out on top? And what did they make of the debate's surprise third party, Joe the Plumber?

Laura DeBusk, 38, Democrat, Virginia, housewife

I thought this was John McCain's best debate performance so far; he was aggressive in advancing his ideas for the economy. The problem for McCain is he is often condescending and smug, so even if he is making a good point, it gets overshadowed by his tone. Obama had a less inspired performance.

Joe McManus, 62, Republican, Washington DC, lawyer

Both candidates showed a complete lack of initiative of how to handle the credit crisis. The choice is clear; let's elect Gordon Brown.

Renee Van Vechten, 39, Democrat, California, professor of political science

Partisans find what they're looking for in these spectacles, but more viewers appreciate Obama's messages to McCain's. Grumpy McCain can take off his slippers and wave them around but he can't land stinging blows.

Mary Beth Ray, 48, Republican, Washington DC, lawyer

Both candidates were on top form, and no doubt Joe the Plumber has by now started his own blog, or reality TV show. Obama proved to be a cool drink of water, looking and sounding like a front-runner.

Mike Bass, 55, Democrat, Memphis, engineer

Obama showed more composure and confidence. He looks a clear winner.

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