Candidates Part Ways After Debate

One day after their first debate, John McCain is back in Washington to work on the economic bailout, while Barack Obama is campaigning in North Carolina and Virginia.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, it's All Things Considered. I'm Andrea Seabrook. The day after the first presidential debate, Barack Obama has hit the campaign trail, and John McCain is back in Washington. Obama is stumping through North Carolina and Virginia today, hitting hard on the themes he raised at last night's debate. NPR's Don Gonyea is with him. NPR's Scott Horsley is with McCain, who came back to the Capitol to work on the Wall Street bailout plan in Congress. Hi, guys.

DON GONYEA: Hi, there.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Good to be with you, Andrea.

SEABROOK: First to you, Don. Is there a moment or a theme that the Obama campaign is particularly happy about today?

GONYEA: Well, here's what they like the best. They feel that, if there were independent undecided voters watching, people who might have had concerns about Senator Obama, how he would look as president, how well he has a grasp of the issues, they feel those questions were answered. But they also feel they got the best of John McCain. This is from the speech Senator Obama gave at a rally today in Greensboro, North Carolina. Give a listen.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois, 2008 Democratic Presidential Nominee): You talked about the economy for 40 minutes and not once did Senator McCain talk about the struggles of middle-class families. Not once did he talk about what they're facing every day right here in North Carolina and around the country.

GONYEA: And the point that Senator Obama made is that Senator McCain talked about Senator Obama for 90 minutes, but he never mentioned the middle class. As Senator Obama put it, he talked about me the whole night, but he never talked about you.

SEABROOK: Over to you, Scott Horsley, the McCain campaign. What are they doing today?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Well, the McCain campaign also seems genuinely happy about the way the debate went last night. There were a lot of smiles in the staff section of the campaign plane as that senator flew back to Washington. One thing they liked is that Senator McCain seemed to be on offense during the debate, challenging Barack Obama's preparedness, especially on foreign affairs. That was an argument that Senator McCain made repeatedly throughout the debate, and one that he summed up in the final few minutes.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona, 2008 Republican Presidential Nominee): I don't think I need any on the job training. I'm ready to go at it right now.

HORSLEY: Also, after a certainly chaotic campaign week, I think supporters were pleased just to see that John McCain didn't look distracted during the debate. He didn't look exhausted. He looked prepared, rested, and relatively relaxed.

SEABROOK: Senator McCain is in Washington. He flew back late last night. What is he doing here today?

HORSLEY: Well, that's right, and the senator originally planned to campaign today in Ohio, and he will still deliver a speech tonight to a Sportsmen Convention in Columbus, Ohio, but he's going to do so via satellite from Washington. He came back here really early this morning with the stated goal of being here for the ongoing talks in the financial rescue.

His role in those talks, so far, I have to say, has been entirely behind the scenes. He was holed up all morning in his Crystal City condominium. Then early this afternoon, he motorcaded around the block to his campaign headquarters. And we're told that he's been working the phones in both those places trying to win over more reluctant Republican votes for a bailout package.

SEABROOK: And Don, you're over with the Obama camp. What's going on, and what's on tap for today?

GONYEA: Well, you can hear the press corps and some of the baggage handlers for the Obama and Biden campaign planes, actually, staging a mock debate about 20 feet from me, if you hear some laughter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: It's one of those things that happens on the sidelines of a campaign. But we're in Greensboro, North Carolina, where the senator just finished up an event. He was joined by his running mate, Joe Biden, their first time back together in a while. Later on, it's off to another event, another rally in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

SEABROOK: NPR's Don Gonyea and NPR's Scott Horsley. Guys, thanks both very much.

GONYEA: All right. Thank you.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Andrea.

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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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