In the first presidential debate of the fall campaign, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain argued Friday night over their voting...
OXFORD, Miss. — In the first presidential debate of the fall campaign, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain argued Friday night over their voting records, their foreign-policy judgments and their positions regarding the war in Iraq.
Although the subject of the financial-rescue package being negotiated in Washington occupied the first 35 minutes, the two major-party candidates largely avoided any discussion of the details and instead attacked each other on familiar political ground.
Obama tied the situation to the policies of the Republican incumbent, whose unpopularity is a major drag on McCain’s candidacy.
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“We have to realize that this is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by John McCain,” Obama said.
McCain highlighted the need to trim the federal budget, long one of his favorite issues.
“The first thing we have to do is get spending under control in Washington, it’s completely out of control … ,” McCain said.
The debate, which was supposed to focus on issues of foreign policy and national security, was held at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
In dealing with those issues, McCain, serving his fourth term in the Senate, did his best to make the less-experienced Obama seem naive and uninformed while Obama sought to portray McCain as too closely aligned with the unpopular incumbent.
On Iraq, for instance, McCain hammered Obama for refusing to acknowledge what he called the success of President Bush’s troop-increase strategy, which McCain was instrumental in getting adopted by the administration.
“This strategy has succeeded, and we are winning in Iraq,” McCain said.
Obama responded by saying McCain was being too selective in his recounting of history.
“John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007,” he said, referring to the year when the surge was implemented. “… The war started in 2003. And at the time, when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong.”
Obama said the administration’s focus on Iraq had created “enormous problems in Afghanistan,” which he described as the central front in the war on terrorism.
But McCain, while acknowledging the need for more troops on that front, said losing in Iraq would have a “calamitous effect” on the situation.
In the final moments of the debate, the candidates returned to the topic, each using it to make his central point, with one man stressing the need for change, the other the value of experience.
Said Obama: “We have weakened our ability to project power around the world because we have everything through the single prism” of Iraq.
McCain countered by saying, “There are some advantages to experience and knowledge and judgment, and I honestly don’t believe Senator Obama has the knowledge and experience — and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas.”
The format of the debate allowed for direct and prolonged exchanges between the candidates. And the dialogue, while restrained at first, became increasingly testy as the 90-minute debate wore on.
For instance, the two men clashed directly over Obama’s statement, made early in his quest for the Democratic nomination, that he would meet with leaders of rogue states such as Iran “without precondition.”
Obama defended his position, claiming such meetings, even if they failed to produce immediate progress, would strengthen the United States’ ability to get its allies to impose sanctions on such states.
McCain would have none of it, arguing that to meet with someone like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be to “legitimize” his harsh anti-Israel views.
“It isn’t just naive,” McCain said of Obama’s approach. “It’s dangerous.”
More generally, McCain said Obama was too much the partisan to broker the kind of bipartisan agreements that are needed to address the nation’s most pressing problems.
“Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate,” McCain said. “It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left.”
Replied Obama: “John mentioned me being wildly liberal, but mostly that’s just me opposing the wrongheaded policies of George Bush.”
Later, the Arizona senator proposed a freeze on all categories of federal spending other than defense, veterans affairs and entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.
Obama dismissed that idea as ill-considered on the ground that “you’re using a hatchet when you should be using a scalpel.”
The debate was expected to be seen by a huge television audience, although the night of the week and the earlier uncertainty about whether the event would actually happen might lower the television ratings.
It was not until after 11 a.m. Friday, less than 10 hours before the event was to begin, that McCain confirmed that he would participate.
On Wednesday, McCain had announced that he was “suspending” his campaign and would not go to Mississippi “until we have taken action” to address the nation’s financial crisis.
By Friday morning, no bailout package was in place, despite a meeting Thursday at the White House attended by congressional leaders as well as McCain and Obama.
But the Republican nominee opted to take part in the debate because, according to a statement put out by his campaign, he was “optimistic that there has been significant progress.”
Obama had planned to participate regardless, saying any would-be president had to be able to do several things at once.
Both men said they planned to return to Washington during the weekend to help get a deal done or at least to vote on the package when it comes to the Senate floor.
Obama and McCain meet again Oct. 7 and 15. Their running mates are to have their one and only encounter Thursday night in St. Louis.