In debates, candidates differ little

‘08 ISSUES:

A defining exchange in the first presidential debate opened with Republican Sen. John McCain’s incredulous condemnation of the threat by Democrat Sen. Barack Obama to launch unilateral military strikes against terrorist outposts in Pakistan, a U.S. ally.

“Now, you don’t do that. You don’t say that out loud,” Mr. McCain said. “If you have to do things, you have to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government.”

Mr. Obama responded that he never talked about “attacking Pakistan” and challenged Mr. McCain to disagree with his policy on hitting terrorist safe havens in Pakistan’s rugged mountains bordering Afghanistan.

“If the United States has al Qaeda, [Osama] bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out,” he said. “Now, I think that’s the right strategy. I think that’s the right policy.”

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INTERACTIVE Electoral map

Mr. McCain, of Arizona, did not disagree with the policy but with saying it “out loud,” a breach of decorum he considers a dangerous rookie mistake on the international stage. However, he defended a similar off-the-cuff remark on the campaign trail by Republican vice-presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin that the United States should “absolutely” launch cross-border attacks into Pakistan.

A similar division separates them on talks with leaders of rogue nations, which Mr. Obama supports as a way of breaking long-standing diplomatic impasses and Mr. McCain insists send the wrong message by validating tyrannical regimes. However, both candidates say lower-level negotiations can pave the way for presidential talks.

These disagreements underscore the “toned and nuanced differences” in diplomatic styles that separate Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama on foreign affairs, said international relations professor Steven David, director of the National Security Studies program at Johns Hopkins University.

“When you look at some of the big issues - whether it is Israel, Iran or the spread of nuclear weapons - it is not clear to me that the differences are that overwhelming, and the differences that exist tend to be exaggerated,” Mr. David said. “You’ve got to base your judgment more on what you believe they will do than on what they say they will do.”

The candidates both vow strong support of Israel and pledge to contain - or reverse - the proliferation of nuclear weapons technology.

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