Obama: “And 100 percent, John, of your ads – 100 percent of them have been negative.”

McCain: “It’s not true.”

Obama: “It absolutely is true.”

That was one of the more memorable exchanges in a very memorable third and final presidential debate. Memorable because it was so forceful – try getting a presidential candidate to say they’re 100 percent sure about anything – and because it struck at the heart of the angst of many Americans who think this campaign has fallen into the trough of depravity.

I’m not someone who thinks that, at least not in this election. This year, I don’t mind politics getting dirty because I hope that kind of nastiness speaks to the determination of both of these men to get us out of the profound morass of criminal ineptitude that has gone on for the last eight years. The stakes, as we keep hearing, are so high in this race that I’m willing to give some leeway to two campaigns that have now effectively marked their territory and have all hands on the projectile kitchen sink.

But anyone who thinks that this election has seen an equal level of nastiness is a blubbering fool, one step above the absolute idiocy seen in a late-October undecided voter. If you don’t know whom you’re voting for now, you haven’t been paying attention – at all.

If you’re one of those yammering clowns saying that the candidates haven’t provided you with any specifics and they’re “only speaking in generalities,” it’s because you’ve turned on CNN for precisely two minutes and all you’ve seen is a general sound bite filtered through three levels of punditry. On most issues, there are more specifics than you could possibly imagine, but you do actually have to open a newspaper or read the fine print on a Web site.

There. That being said, yes, the level of nastiness in this campaign tilts rightward, and the facts prove it.

Bill Adair, editor of Politifact.com, the fact-checking arm of the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly, did the talk show rounds after the debate to suss out the veracity of the more remarkable claims. Per the subject of Obama’s 100 percent claim, on MSNBC he eagerly gave out Politifact’s “Pants on Fire” rating on the Truth-o-Meter, the lowest possible score. Obama was clearly wrong, Adair said smugly, because the Wisconsin Advertising Project has found that only 73 percent of McCain’s ads have been negative to date.

What a pyrrhic victory for McCain. Congratulations, John. Obama was dead wrong when he said that every single one of your ads is negative. In fact, only three quarters of everything that you’ve put on TV has been an attack on your opponent.

In GOP terms, that kind of record should nominate you for sainthood. Yes, Obama lied/distorted/spun numbers during the debate – Adair notes that during one particular week, from Sept. 28 to Oct. 4, indeed nearly all the McCain ads were negative – but the truth is equally unpleasant. McCain has run an uphill battle all year, through a rough primary and into a general election with a profoundly sour mood in the country, slinging mud all the way.

The Wisconsin Advertising Project also found that 61 percent of Obama’s ads have been negative, so Mr. Change We Can Believe isn’t blameless here. He’s not so much the victim as he’d like us to believe, nor is he incapable of pushing back on some of the more outrageous claims with political bricks of his own.

But I can see where Obama and his campaign minders are coming from. In 2004, hapless John Kerry went negative only 34 percent of the time in his ads, according to the same study group, against 64 percent from the W. Bush/Karl Rove brass knuckles machine. Obama, the professor from Chicago known for his love of basketball, has sharpened his elbows for this fight.

The next president, come Election Day, will be the one who most effectively bashes his opponent while taking the high road. Our history is replete with beloved leaders whose ruthlessness was matched only in their remarkable capacity to seemingly rise above the fray and deliver an otherworldly message of hope/acceptance/togetherness/opportunity that belied the presently rotten state of our daily lives. John Kennedy had dead people asking what they could do for their country by voting for him (several times) in Chicago, Ronald Reagan “did not” have anything to do with giving Iran weapons in return for hostages, FDR had nothing to fear but fear itself and then promptly succumbed to xenophobic fear and interned hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans.

From here, two weeks out, each candidate wants to look more visionary than cranky, more constructive than critical. And no, John, you aren’t fooling anyone with that laugh that just barely covers your desire to scream.

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