With the final debate over, and the election entering its final three week stage – it is worth remembering that there have been entire British and Australian campaigns of not much more than three weeks in toto – discussion and debate has focused all day not on whether McCain won the debate, but on whether he has anything left to campaign on.

That he lost the debate is without question. Sixty per cent of respondents on all polls have declared Obama the winner to thirty per for Walnuts, and even when that is adjusted to allow for a 40%/30%/30% Democrat/Republican/Independent vote, it still turns out pretty well for him.

Having blusteringly promised on radio that he would “whip [Obama’s] you-know-what” – what a great phrase to apply to a black man in a former slave society – McCain came out punchy as ever, while Obama, well, like an earlier candidate who knew about ass whuppings, floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

While McCain grunted and grimaced and interrupted, and, whenever attacked, wrote huge notes on a big pad like a bad schoolkid drawing enormous cock and balls, Obama leaned back and smiled, wasn’t afraid to reply to McCain’s questions – on Bill Ayers for example – and in general was so smoooooth brother, because he knew it was driving McCain’s prostate so far back up his ass that he was choking on it.

McCain needed to roll out something new and he did – the now famous Joe the Plumber, the Ohio self-employed single father, who expressed his concern about Obama’s tax plans. McCain turned him into a small businessowner above the quarter million threshold of Obama’s tax cuts, and made him a reasonably effective centrepiece cum sock-puppet for his arguments that Obama’s tax plans would harm job creation.

The only crimp in the whole higher-taxed small businessman Joe the plumber thang is that the business doesn’t come near the quarter mil earnings threshold, Joe doesn’t own it – he’s thinking of buying it from his employer – and he isn’t even a plumber, never having taking the contractors’ test. Oh and as the kiss-of-the-ass-whip, his name isn’t Joe, it’s Sam.

Sam Joe the un-plumber has been besieged with media attention since the debate, though to his credit, he’s refused to say who he would vote for. If he could vote, that is – he’s not registered. His few statements indicated a straightforward blue collar Republican – “why should people who earn more pay a higher tax rate, stop hating America, Iraq has made us safer” – and refused to reveal how much he earned, though the Toledo Blade later established it as forty thousand a year.

Same Joe, in other words, appears to be a decent person whose heartfelt belief in the fairness of America and that reward is somehow related to effort, must have the country club Republicans he votes for laughing till they hoik up their epiglotti. With his encounter with Obama, it appeared as if he had done them another fine service, giving McCain a motif he needed for the last part of the contest – if not enough to win, at least something to talk about.

Now, McCain is in a right bind. With various Ohio trades boards investigating where and when Joe may have done work he wasn’t certified to perform, team GOP may have endangered his livelihood – and exposed the business he works for, to legal liability problems. With Joe himself a media figure in his own right, how can McCain ventriloquise him for another three weeks?

The nightmare would be that Joe would rightly get irritated, turn round and say that John McCain doesn’t speak for him, and that whole tranche of remnant Nixon/Reagan/thick Democrats would be lost to the GOP.

The problem is all the more tantilising when you consider what a gaffe Obama’s “spread the wealth” remark was, in the US, in Ohio, in the 2000s. Old Barry couldn’t have sounded more European if he’d said it in French, while sucking on a gitane. “Oue er geweng tur spreeed yer owulth lak menn yure fur ze – ow you say – leetle piggies.” Slap slap. “Owure eez yer wayfe owur meestress Ai wuld laike tur impregnate etc…”

With the whole Democrat party having had drilled into them the “language framing” argument – “we’re going to make the tax system fairer for everyone”, how about – now is not the time for the Obama campaign to return to the sloppiness and lack of focus of late summer.

Joe may not be as useful – oh, he also owes a grand in unpaid taxes too – as even twenty four hours ago, but it’s some sort of crack McCain might be able to haul himself up on.

But McCain’s going to need that, because whatever advantages he’s gained, it’s now being generally argued he’ll lose double on the other stand out moment of the night, which was his wrapping airquotes around “the health of the mother” when talking about partial-birth abortion, this numerically tiny and fraught practice that has become some sort of gold-standard for acceptability to the American right.

“Pro-abortionists have expanded that so much…” McCain growled. Quite possibly they have, but what is McCain suggesting – that laws should be passed which make it illegal to save the life of a woman who may die from carrying to term, or going into labour? The Christian right does believe that, of course, which is a measure of the cruelty and misogyny that lies at the base of their abortion obsession. And McCain seemed to give that remark a brutal heft coming from somewhere else deeper and more private.

For anyone sane, it was a nasty moment. For anyone who’s had, or loves someone who’s had, a sudden heart murmur, a haemorrhage, or half a dozen other things during pregnancy, that weren’t serious but could have been, it’s suddenly personal – John McCain would have voted to kill me/my partner/my daughter, etc. That’s going to decide a bunch of waverers right there.

But above all what could be worse than air quotes around “health of the mother”? Saturday Night Live would think twice about putting that on any conservative character. Is there a more contemptuous gesture, a signal staged twitch around a phrase expressing an ocean of pain, fear, guilt and more for millions of people directly or otherwise?

I very much doubt the Obama campaign will use it – their post election ads focussed on McCain’s pro-Bush voting record, and they’ll stay on the economy and health care – but you would have to believe that 527 groups, MoveOn et al, will consider running hard on it. The only downside would be the possibility of scoring a few more base votes of McCain, but Palin would appear to have guaranteed those already.

Though the debate was widely held to put McCain out for the count, Obama has already started leaning on his supporters to keep up the pressure, warning a New York fundraiser “not to be complacent” and “remember New Hampshire” ie the in-the-bag primary, two hundred and thirty years ago, he lost to Hillary.

The battle in a US election at this stage, is to get out those registered, Mickey Mouse, the Dallas Cowboys, the kid who signed up 72 times n all – both to actually get them to follow through, and/or make sure they know that registering is not, in itself, voting. Though the numbers are very good for Obama, they have to be to defeat any residual Bradley effect, Florida-style November surprise etc etc.

McCain’s last chance – and it is more than a merely formal one – is to use the “share the wealth” argument as a key point of difference between himself and Obama, and portray that as the American versus un-American divide. Even with the huge deficit he’s facing in ad spending, that may be sufficient, with hard work to wear things down.

Stranger things have happened. Stranger things have happened this morning. After Richard Nixon, will John McCain be the second candidate to turn to a bunch of fake plumbers to ensure victory?