- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2008

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.

“We’ve had years in which the reigning economic ideology has been what’s good for Wall Street, but not what’s good for Main Street,” Mr. Obama said.

Just hours before the debate it had been unclear whether it would even take place. Mr. McCain had proposed postponing the affair so he and Mr. Obama could help broker a bailout agreement in Washington. He also unilaterally suspended his campaign ads.

But Mr. Obama refused to delay the debate, arguing presidents must handle more than one issue. And facing pressure from even within his own party, Mr. McCain reversed course Friday morning, saying that even though no deal was done he felt good enough about its progress to restart his campaign. He didn’t explain his reversal at the debate.

Mr. McCain plans to return to Washington to continue negotiations on the bailout. His campaign said he had been involved in negotiations Friday morning in an effort to bridge the divide.

With polls showing the race nearly even, both nationally and in the key states expected to decide the race in the electoral college, the debates are expected to be decisive in deciding the next president.

Up next is a debate next week between the vice-presidential nominees, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, and Gov. Sarah Palin, Alaska Republican. That is followed by two more debates between Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama.

For the most part Friday night Mr. Obama maintained the cool, smooth attitude that has served him so well on the campaign stump, though he repeatedly smirked and interjected with objections as Mr. McCain attacked him.

Even as Mr. Obama was being pounded on his vow to negotiate without preconditions with enemy leaders, he slammed Mr. McCain for refusing in a recent interview to say he would meet with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

“Spain is a NATO ally. If we can’t meet with our friends, I don’t know how we’re going to lead the world in terms of dealing with critical issues like terrorism,” Mr. Obama said.

Facing the 47-year-old Mr. Obama and his message of change, Mr. McCain, 72, stressed his years in Washington and his extensive experience on foreign policy while tossing off his own share of smirks.

Seven times Mr. McCain said Mr. Obama “doesn’t seem to understand” the world the U.S. faces on terrorism, dealing with a resurgent militarist Russia and the successes of the Iraq troop surge.

Republicans said Mr. Obama said he agreed with Mr. McCain eight times during the 90-minute debate, at one point even following Mr. McCain’s lead and pointing out he, too, wears a bracelet commemorating an Iraq war soldier. But Mr. Obama stumbled as he tried to recall the name of the soldier.

Little new ground was broken on the Iraq war, with Mr. Obama saying Mr. McCain was wrong to vote for the war in 2002 and Mr. McCain accusing Mr. Obama of being wrong on how to save the war effort.

“The next president of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind,” not whether to invade, Mr. McCain said, repeatedly criticizing Mr. Obama for opposing the troop surge that has helped quell violence.

But Mr. Obama said by joining Mr. Bush in supporting the war at the beginning, Mr. McCain cannot see a path out.

“John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge, the war started in 2003,” he said. “And at the 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.”

Only Mr. McCain mentioned the most important political figure not on stage: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York Democrat who nearly won the Democratic nomination and whose supporters have become a key swing group in November’s election. The Arizona senator said he’s worked with Mrs. Clinton on his efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

In keeping with his theme of bipartisanship Mr. McCain also led off the debate by mentioning another liberal icon, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, who was taken to the hospital yesterday after complaining of pain.

Moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS’ “NewsHour” allowed the candidates plenty of room to spar, and they went at it on nearly every question.

It’s the first time the two men have faced off head-to-head, though they have attended joint forums and delivered speeches at the same events before. Mr. McCain had proposed a series of 10 joint town halls but Mr. Obama said that was far too many, and the idea foundered.

Joseph Curl contributed to this report.