The two presidential candidates clashed Friday night over taxes, spending and national security as Sen. Barack Obama painted his rival as a loyal supporter of failed Republican policies while Sen. John McCain charged that his Democratic challenger was a naive liberal who “doesn’t understand” the world’s most grave challenges.
“There are some advantages to experience and knowledge and judgment, and I honestly don’t believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience, and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas,” Mr. McCain said during one of the sharpest exchanges of the 90-minute debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
With tens of millions of Americans watching, both men gave little ground in a debate that was supposed to focus solely on foreign affairs but frequently drifted into questions of the current economic crisis.
Mr. Obama, slightly ahead in polls that reflect a close race, repeatedly sought to link Mr. McCain to the economic policies and Iraq war mistakes of the unpopular President Bush. The current economic crisis, Mr. Obama asserted at one point, is “a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by President Bush and supported by Senator McCain.”
Mr. McCain pointedly distanced himself from Mr. Bush, calling himself a “maverick of the Senate.”
“I have opposed the president on spending, on climate change, on torture of prisoners, on Guantanamo Bay … on the way that the Iraq war was conducted. I have a long record and the American people know me very well,” the Republican candidate said, portraying himself as better equipped to bring bipartisan consensus to Washington.
“Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the Senate,” Mr. McCain said at one point. “It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left.”
Mr. Obama shot back, “Mostly that’s just me opposing George Bush’s wrong-headed policies.”
But Mr. McCain counterpunched on that comparison, arguing that Mr. Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war surge, which he has never repudiated despite acknowledging its success, shows Mr. Obama as having the same ideological stubbornness that has plagued the Bush administration’s decision-making.
“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.”
The debate was scheduled to be about foreign affairs, but domestic issues, especially the Wall Street mess and sluggish economy dominated the early part of the affair, forcing Mr. Obama to acknowledge he might not be able to keep all his campaign spending promises.
Pressed repeatedly for what might be left on the floor, he said he would forgo some of his plans to boost alternative energy.
“There’s no doubt that we’re not going to be able to do everything that I think needs to be done,” he said.
Mr. McCain said he would freeze federal spending except for defense, veterans’ affairs and entitlements, and countered that Mr. Obama has only recently taken up the cause of cutting spending. Mr. Obama criticized a spending freeze, calling it taking a “hatchet” to the budget when a “scalpel” was needed.
Both men said they are likely to support the Wall Street bailout package being crafted in Washington, but Mr. Obama went farther, blaming the problem on Mr. Bush and Mr. McCain.