New York, Oct.16 : Republican nominee John McCain needed the headlines and his third debate with Democratic rival Barack Obama saw him more energetic, focused and, at times, emotional.
But his performance on Wednesday is unlikely to change the underlying trajectory of the 2008 presidential race.
With Barack Obama by all accounts holding a solid lead and less than three weeks to go, McCain came out aggressive from the very beginning.
McCain took what many in his own campaign reportedly thought to be a risk by directly raising the issue of Obama's association with William Ayers, challenging him to describe the fullness of their relationship.
He emotionally described how hurt he was by assertions by Rep. John Lewis about some crowd behavior at McCain's campaign rallies, then turned around and accused Obama of disparaging his supporters. He jumped in at awkward moments, rolled his eyes and demonstrated near-contempt at Obama's answers.
And he pointedly sought to distance himself from President Bush, both on issues and seemingly personally. As if taking offense to the continued comparison, McCain curtly told his opponent, "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
What McCain did not manage to do was ruffling the ever-calm, cool and collected Obama.
Democrat Obama was on the defensive at several points, especially on taxes, but he continues to do a masterful job of talking directly about and to the middle class.
Polls show overwhelmingly that voters trust Obama more on the economy than McCain and he used that as a wedge to keep it that way.
The Illinois Senator was clearly prepared for the William Ayers issue and McCain's attempts to link his campaign to ACORN, the group that has spurred a flood of voter registration controversies.
And while he engaged McCain on who's responsible for the negative tone of the campaign, his heart didn't seem to be into a prolonged exchange. Obama wanted a quiet, low-key affair and for his part, he pulled it off.
The campaign now moves into its most intense phase, if such a thing is even possible in a campaign that has redefined the concept. With just 20 days to go, there's no longer any room for error, adjustment or new approaches.
Americans have seen these two candidates at three of these debates now and they've seen a striking contrast - McCain has been at turns uplifting and irritated, if not flat-out angry, while Obama remains steady and level, almost too cool at times.
Those traits were clearly on display last night in New York.