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McCain gives voters a peek at character

This presidential election gets more historic by the day.

In August, we officially got the first black major-party nominee.

A week later, we got the first female on a Republican Party ticket.

Now we have the first schizophrenic.

The John McCain who showed up in Nashville on Tuesday night to debate serious issues was a pleasant surprise after seeing the John McCain of recent days on the campaign trail.

It was almost as if the Arizona senator had been with me earlier in the day in the Walden Galleria when I stopped 10 people and asked each of them one question: What are your top three issues in the campaign?

Not surprisingly, the economy and the war topped the list. Some Western New Yorkers couldn't even think of a third issue, given the exodus of young people and the fretting over how to revive the region.

Tom Zanghi, a 48-year-old father from Cassadaga, spoke for many.

"Western New York is losing all of our young kids," said Zanghi. "I've got two kids in college, and I don't think either one of them is going to find work in Western New York."

Of the few who didn't pick the economy or the war, most chose health care or education. The only exception was Amherst retiree Robert C. Thomas, who said the issue is to "get rid of the Democrats" because "they think you can raise taxes indefinitely, and you can't do that." But even that was a substantive complaint.

What was noticeable was what these Western New Yorkers didn't say.

No one mentioned 1960s radical Bill Ayers.

No one mentioned the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

And no one mentioned Barack Obama's middle name.

Maybe that's why John McCain didn't either -- at least not Tuesday night.

But McCain's trek along the high road after stump speeches questioning Obama's background raises a troubling question about the GOP war hero:

Does he not have the character to say to Obama's face the things he says when his opponent is not standing a few feet away?

What are voters to make of a candidate who makes scurrilous attacks in friendly crowds or TV commercials, but who lacks the courage of those convictions when standing right in front of his opponent in a town-hall setting?

McCain even shunned the opportunity when moderator Tom Brokaw asked what the two men don't know. I would have bet the house (not much, considering the market right now) that McCain would have taken that opening to launch one of his "I don't know who Barack Obama really is, and you don't either" smears.

To his credit, he didn't.

All debate long, he talked mortgages, taxes, health care, the war and other issues that matter. Even if you disagree with him, the discussion was worthy of a presidential candidate.

But it was just one of the two faces of John McCain.

Perhaps he belatedly concluded the public only cares about big issues. If he had spent his July visit to Buffalo talking with average citizens instead of just with rich donors, he already would have known that.

But it also could be that McCain is just the political equivalent of a petty gossip, someone who'll say all sorts of things behind a person's back -- albeit, with cameras rolling -- but who shrivels in a face-to-face setting.

The answer should come before the next debate. What will he say -- and have his campaign say -- in the coming days when Obama is not standing next to him?

That will define the real John McCain in a race in which he is right about one thing: Character matters.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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