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McCain goes on offensive early

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Now we know why John McCain kept pushing for town halls.

It took just 10 minutes for the Arizona Republican senator to fire off his first real shot at his Democratic presidential opponent in Tuesday night's debate, the only one to feature his desired town-hall format, as he blamed Sen. Barack Obama "and his cronies" for the housing crisis that sent Wall Street spiraling.

After last month's first policy-heavy debate, an affair that polls suggested Mr. Obama won, Mr. McCain was determined to make sure his opponent left the stage in Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday with claw marks on his back: He ridiculed the Democrat for asking for $3 million in pork-barrel spending for a projector for a Chicago planetarium, and said trying to pin Mr. Obama down on taxes was "like nailing Jell-O to the wall."

Trailing in the polls, Mr. McCain came to mix it up. But he was often swinging at a shadowy target. Mr. Obama was nimble and professorial, content to hang back, spend his time bashing President Bush and play the honest broker to Mr. McCain's repeated attacks.

"You know, the Straight Talk Express lost a wheel on that," Mr. Obama fired back, when he was attacked on taxes.

Still, Mr. Obama summed up the evening when he said Mr. McCain was accusing him of being "green behind the ears" and portraying himself as "somber and responsible."

"Thank you very much," Mr. McCain responded.

Earlier this year, Mr. McCain had proposed a series of 10 town halls with Mr. Obama to delve deeply into issues and raise the campaign above the back-and-forth that usually dominates. Mr. Obama rejected that proposal.

Tuesday's affair did little to suggest voters would have gotten much substance out of 10 more town halls. The candidates were hamstrung by the format and the moderator, NBC's Tom Brokaw, who failed to pin either man down on any issue but selected questions that let them wander across the policy spectrum.

The joint forum approach taken by Pastor Rick Warren at his values forum at Saddleback Church in California in August continues to be the standard by which these debates will be evaluated, and they fall short.

Left to judge the candidates on mood and symbols, rather than specifics, both men will claim victory.

Mr. McCain drew the distinctions he wanted to draw, repeatedly pointed to his extensive record, and managed to work energy independence and his support for offshore drilling into the most unusual of places.

Mr. Obama, though, often managed to bring the debate back to his critique of Mr. Bush, blasting him from the opening moments of the debate for the financial crisis, for out-of-control government spending and for a foreign policy that Mr. Obama said has failed.

As for the question of style, Mr. McCain prowled the red-carpeted stage with the confidence that comes from being the champion of town halls, going face-to-face with the questioners in the audience. At one point, he was so wrapped up in his attack he pointed at Mr. Obama and called him "that one."

The Obama campaign was incredulous, writing an e-mail to reporters asking, "Did John McCain just refer to Obama as 'that one?'"

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