ST. LOUIS | Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Gov. Sarah Palin clashed Thursday over Iraq, with the Democrat charging that Sen. John McCain sees “no end in sight” for the 5-year-old war and the Republican charging that Sen. Barack Obama wants to wave “the white flag of surrender.”
The two vice-presidential nominees, who by this weekend will each have a son fighting in Iraq, took diametrically opposed positions on the war, arguing over Mr. Obama’s opposition to the “surge” of troops that stabilized the country and Mr. McCain’s support of the Bush administration missteps in the war’s early years.
“I know that the other ticket opposed this surge,” said Mrs. Palin, whose son, Track, is serving in Iraq. We’re getting closer and closer to victory, and it would be a travesty if we quit now in Iraq. … Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq.’
Mr. Biden said that there must be a timeline for withdrawal and that Iraq must step up to take the reins as he set out the “fundamental difference between us — we will end this war. For John McCain, there is no end in sight to end this war. Fundamental difference: we will end this war.”
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Each accused the other’s running mate of voting against funding for U.S. troops in combat Thursday, with Mrs. Palin chastising Mr. Biden, saying the vote was wrong, “especially with your son in the National Guard” and headed for Iraq on Friday.
“Barack Obama voted against funding troops there after promising that he would not do so. And Senator Biden, I respected you when you called him out on that. You said that his vote was political and you said it would cost lives.”
But Mr. Biden fired back that “John McCain voted against funding for the troops,” ignoring the mention of his son.
Mr. McCain, he said, had been “dead wrong on the fundamental issues relating to the conduct of the war.”
In the most highly anticipated debate of the campaign season, the nominees were cordial, often talking not to each other but directly into the camera.
“Hey, can I call you Joe?” Mrs. Palin said as the two took the stage at Washington University. They quickly became surrogates for their running mates, targeting the tops of the ticket on positions ranging from the economy to gay marriage to energy.
Throughout the debate, Mrs. Palin cast herself as an every-mom, answering a question about the proposed government bailout of Wall Street by saying that parents on the sidelines of soccer games are worried about the economy.
She said government should commit to “Joe Six-pack [and] hockey moms across the nation,” and most of all should demand that as a country we “don’t live outside of our means.”
She deployed folksy language such as “darn right,” “bringin’” and “betcha.” She noted that she and her husband, Todd, have been middle class “all our lives” and said government is “too often” the problem. She said she has a message for government: “Get out of the way.”
Mr. Biden opened with a rebuke of President Bush’s economic policy, a theme he stuck to all evening while making the case for Mr. Obama. He said the Democratic ticket will “focus on the middle class” and repeated his stump speech criticism of Mr. McCain saying recently the fundamentals of the economy are “strong.”
Mrs. Palin, who appeared relaxed and confident while occasionally looking down at notes as she answered questions from the debate moderator, repeatedly checked off the policy positions of Mr. McCain, calling him a maverick who will shake up Washington as president.
For his part, Mr. Biden, who early on had beads of sweat on his forehead, detailed Mr. Obama’s call for tax cuts to 95 percent of Americans, rejecting Mrs. Palin’s charge that he voted for increases 94 times as a senator, and recited fact after fact as he sought to dissect not Mrs. Palin, but Mr. McCain
“The charge is absolutely not true,” Mr. Biden said. “Barack Obama did not vote to raise taxes. The vote she’s referring to, John McCain voted the exact same way. It was a budget procedural vote. John McCain voted the same way. It did not raise taxes. Number two, using the standard that the governor uses, John McCain voted 477 times to raise taxes. It’s a bogus standard.”
Mrs. Palin directed her answers straight to the camera, telling her rival and moderator Gwen Ifill that she preferred to “speak right to the American people.” The governor turned every answer into an opportunity to showcase her record as governor or to slam the Democratic ticket.
“We’re tired of the old politics as usual,” she said, as Mr. Biden smiled wide. “And that’s why, with all due respect, I do respect your years in the U.S. Senate, but I think Americans are craving something new and different and that new energy and that new commitment that’s going to come with reform.”
She referred to Mr. Obama as “Barack” in most of her answers and rarely referred to Mr. Biden by name.
When the debate began, Mr. Biden greeted her warmly with a handshake and briefly touching her arm.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Biden sent a signal to the viewers at home that Mrs. Palin is a political newcomer: “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Mrs. Palin did not return the favor, not acknowledging her rival but instead talking up the Republican nominee.
The nominees said they both oppose gay marriage and agreed that action is necessary on climate change.
The high stakes also cast the spotlight on Miss Ifill as the debate’s moderator.
Some conservatives have criticized the Commission on Presidential Debates Commission for selecting Miss Ifill, who works for PBS, because she is writing a book “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.” The book is about how politics among blacks have changed since the civil rights era. She has said she has yet to write the chapter about Mr. Obama and has questioned why people think it will be favorable toward the Democrat.
“Frankly, I wish they had picked a moderator that isn’t writing a book favorable to Barack Obama,” Mr. McCain told Fox News on Thursday. “But I have to have confidence that Gwen Ifill will treat this as a professional journalist that she is.”
Miss Ifill alluded to the controversy when taking the stage — on crutches because of a recent fall. She noted, “I fell, I wasn’t pushed,” and the audience laughed.
Mrs. Palin has had a shaky month, giving several TV interviews that have been roundly criticized, even parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” where comedian Tina Fey is a dead-ringer for the telegenic nominee. When she sat down in New York to meet her first world leader, her staff suddenly banned reporters before relenting and allowing the press into later meetings.
Her series of interviews on CBS — in which she could not cite Mr. McCain’s record and failed to name a Supreme Court decision with which she disagreed besides Roe v. Wade — further eroded her public image one month before the nation chooses the next president.
Earlier Thursday, Mrs. Palin and Mr. Biden missed each other by an hour at the airport — the Alaska governor landed so early that she got to the debate site too early to do her walkthrough and had to wait. Their planes were parked yards from each other on the tarmac.
She flew from Arizona, where she had practiced for the debate at Mr. McCain’s house, aboard the Straight Talk Express II. On the way, her two youngest daughters, Willow and Piper, visited the press pod in the back of the plane. There, Piper, 7, handed out black licorice sticks while Willow, who is in eighth grade and brought her homework along for the trip, handed out round stickers that said: “Vote for Piper’s Mom!”
Mrs. Palin stayed up front in the plane with her 6-month-old baby, Trig. The governor was sporting a large flesh-colored bandage on her right palm, the result of a fall while running on loose gravel Monday afternoon.
She had prepped nearly all day Wednesday, taking a short dinner break for grilled steaks and twice-baked potatoes before plunging back in for more practice with McCain senior foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann.
Along with her husband and several of her children, Mrs. Palin was joined by her parents in St. Louis. But there was a small glitch at the airport when she arrived: The flight stairs had to be repositioned three times, so the attendant kept opening and closing the heavy aircraft door.
Mrs. Palin carried Trig down the stairs, then handed him to Piper, who seemed to have a slightly tenuous hold on him. A few seconds later, Willow took the baby to the relief of onlookers.