No Gaffes, No Knockouts In McCain-Obama Debate

John McCain and Barack Obama met in their first debate Friday night and clashed over the financial crisis, taxes, spending and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The theme of the night was supposed to have been foreign policy, but the Wall Street meltdown and continuing negotiations over a federal bailout forced their way onto the agenda.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. John McCain and Barack Obama met at their first debate last night. They clashed over the financial crisis, taxes, spending, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The theme of the night was to have been foreign policy, but the Wall Street meltdown and continuing negotiations over a federal bailout forced their way onto the agenda. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports from the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford where the debate took place.

MARA LIASSON: The first 40 minutes of the debate were devoted to the financial crisis and the economy, the number one issue for voters. Both candidates had flown to Mississippi from Washington after taking part in the talks about a rescue package. Although negotiations continue, the broad elements of a deal are known, so the moderator of the debate, PBS's Jim Lehrer, started off by asking where they stood on the plan. Obama took the opportunity to press his main attack on McCain.

BARACK OBAMA: We also have to recognize that this is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections, and give more and more to the most, and somehow prosperity will trickle down. It hasn't worked.

LIASSON: Obama, who has a big advantage over McCain on the economy, wanted to focus on the problem and how Bush and McCain had caused it. McCain wanted to focus on a solution.

JOHN MCCAIN: Because as we're here tonight in this debate, we are seeing for the first time in a long time Republicans and Democrats together sitting down trying to work out a solution to this fiscal crisis that we're in.

LIASSON: McCain had shaken things up this week by demanding that he and Obama return to Washington to be part of the congressional talks with the White House. McCain is trying to wring some dividend from the economic crisis that has been hurting him and his party in the polls. So last night he focused on what he called his leadership in the midst of crisis, especially his efforts to get the House Republicans to endorse the president's bailout plan.

MCCAIN: And yes, I went back to Washington, and I met with my Republicans in the House of Representatives, and they weren't part of the negotiations, and I understand that. And it was the House Republicans that decided that they would be part of the solution to this problem.

LIASSON: But Obama wasn't about to let McCain forget what he recently said about the economy.

OBAMA: Ten days ago John said that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. I do not think that they are.

JIM LEHRER: Say it directly to him.

OBAMA: I will do that. John, 10 days ago you said that the fundamentals of the economy are sound, and...

MCCAIN: Were you afraid I couldn't hear him?

LEHRER: I am just determined to get you all to talk to each other. I'm going to try.

LIASSON: The moderator tried without much success to get the two men to engage each other directly, but each preferred to address the television audience. Still, there was plenty of sparring on taxes and spending. McCain called Obama the most liberal member of the Senate. He said it's hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left. Obama tied McCain to Bush.

OBAMA: John, it's been your president, who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time, who presided over this increase in spending, this orgy of spending, and enormous deficits. And you voted for almost all of his budgets.

LIASSON: On this, as on other issues, McCain was at pains to distance himself from Bush.

MCCAIN: It's well-known that I have not been elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate, nor with the administration. I have opposed the president on spending, on climate change, on torture of prisoners, on Guantanamo Bay, on a long - on the way that the Iraq war was conducted. I have a long record, and the American people know me very well.

LIASSON: Obama got McCain on the defensive by hammering on his ties to President Bush. But when the debate turned to foreign policy for its final hour, McCain went on the attack. On Iraq, McCain said the most important task of the next president is to decide how and when to leave Iraq, and what to leave behind.

MCCAIN: Senator Obama said the surge could not work. He said it would increase sectarian violence. He said it was doomed to failure. Recently on a television program he said it exceeded our wildest expectations. But yet after conceding that, he still says that he would oppose the surge if he had to decide that again today. Incredibly, Senator Obama didn't go to Iraq for 900 days and never asked for a meeting with General Petraeus.

LIASSON: Obama pressed what he called the fundamental difference between them on Iraq, the decision to invade in the first place.

OBAMA: John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003. And at that 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. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni, and you were wrong.

LIASSON: Slightly ahead in the polls, Obama wanted to hold his own and look presidential last night to come across as a credible commander in chief. McCain came hoping to press his advantage on foreign policy. And in discussing Iraq, Iran, Russia, and Afghanistan he pointed repeatedly to his long record and experience and travel to those regions. Finally, he summed up his brief against his younger opponent.

MCCAIN: I honestly don't believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience, and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas, including his initial reaction to Russian aggression in Georgia, to his - you know, we've seen this stubbornness before in this administration to cling to a belief that somehow the surge has not succeeded. And failing to acknowledge that he was wrong about the surge is - shows to me that we need more flexibility in a president of the United States than that.

LIASSON: I don't need on-the-job training, McCain said. I am ready to go at it right now. Obama ended by promising he would restore America's standing in the world.

OBAMA: What the next president has to do, and this is part of our judgment, this is part of how we're going to keep America safe, is to send a message to the world that we are going to invest in issues like education, we are going to invest in issues that relate to how ordinary people are able to live out their dreams.

LIASSON: Neither man has a reputation as a terrific debater, but last night they were both at what may have been their best. Both were relaxed and forceful. McCain stayed focused and didn't get angry. Obama was crisper and less professorial than in his primary debates. Neither committed any gaffes, nor did either land a knockout blow. And the entourage for both declared their man the clear winner. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Oxford, Mississippi.

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Obama, McCain Face Off Over Spending And War

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Patrons watch the first presidential debate at a bar called Top of The Hill in Washington, D.C.

Patrons watch the first presidential debate at a bar called Top of The Hill in Washington, D.C., Sept. 26, 2008. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Republican John McCain makes a point during the first presidential debate. David McNew/Getty Images hide caption

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John McCain

Republican John McCain makes a point during the first presidential debate.

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Democrat Barack Obama answers a question during the first presidential debate. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

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Barack Obama

Democrat Barack Obama answers a question during the first presidential debate.

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Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts (left) speaks with former Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi prior to the first presidential debate in Oxford, Miss. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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John Kerry and Trent Lott

Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts (left) speaks with former Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi prior to the first presidential debate in Oxford, Miss.

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Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama skirmished Friday night over issues ranging from the nation's fiscal crisis to its foreign threats in their first nationally televised debate.

The two senators pressed their basic themes: Republican McCain stressed his experience, while Obama claimed that his was the broader vision. Obama tried to paint his rival as an extension of George W. Bush, while McCain sought to portray the Democrat as a tax-and-spend liberal.

Moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS began the debate with the most immediate question on most voters' minds: where each candidate stood on the proposed $700 billion bailout for Wall Street. Both men agreed that Congress needs to take action, but neither committed to supporting specific parts of the plan.

McCain asserted that Obama had "the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate," while Obama tried to link McCain to what he said were "eight years of failed economic policies promoted by President Bush."

Lehrer followed by asking how each candidate, as president, would cope with the revenue lost to the bailout. Obama said that he would go slower but would not stop what he said were priorities: working toward energy independence, fixing the health care system and remaining competitive in education, science and technology.

McCain said that he would focus on cutting spending, and he accused Obama of being "a recent convert" in his opposition to big spending and budget earmarks. McCain promised that as president he would veto any pork barrel project, regardless of which lawmaker proposed it, declaring, "You will know their names, and I will make them famous."

This debate was supposed to be about foreign policy and national security, but it very nearly didn't happen, after McCain insisted that he wanted to postpone the match until lawmakers reached a deal on a rescue package for the financial markets. After prospects for a quick agreement slipped away, McCain said that he would take the stage with Obama at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

The foreign policy part of the debate began with questions about the candidates' signature disagreement: the war in Iraq. Obama, who opposed the war before he ran for Congress, asserted that McCain was repeatedly wrong about the war, insisting that the U.S. was victorious in the years when American strategy was failing.

McCain pointed to his own support for the "surge," the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq in 2007, saying that Obama had refused to acknowledge the success of the strategy carried out by Gen. David Petraeus. Obama countered, "John, you like to pretend the war began in 2007."

Obama has maintained consistently that the Bush administration's single-minded focus on the war in Iraq was a diversion that allowed al-Qaida and the Taliban to regroup in Pakistan. He tried to tie his rival to that strategy.

For his part, McCain sought to portray Obama as naive and inexperienced. He hit at him for having said that he would negotiate with Iranian leaders without preconditions. He said a presidential-level meeting with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would legitimize someone who has called Israel "a stinking corpse" and has said that the Jewish state should be wiped off the face of the Earth. Obama countered by saying that such talks would be undertaken with "preparations," not preconditions. He noted that a key McCain adviser, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, has advocated talks without preconditions.

The two candidates pursued their themes of experience versus vision in skirmishes over the conflict between Russia and Georgia and the question of North Korea's nuclear program.

Immediately after the fact, many analysts saw the candidates' first contest as a draw. Foreign policy was regarded by many as a strong suit for McCain, but Obama was able to hold his own with his familiar theme that the Bush administration had squandered military and foreign policy resources on the war in Iraq.

The two men are scheduled to face each other twice more. They'll meet next on Oct. 7 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and again at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 15. Their vice presidential running mates, Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, will meet once, in a debate at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 2.

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