Fight Night: McCain, Obama Spar on Economy, Foreign Affairs

2008 presidential nominees debate for first time in Oxford, Miss.

September 26, 2008, 4:55 PM

Sept. 27, 2008— -- In the first of the election season's presidential debates, Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama said America's staggered economy was the "final verdict" on President Bush's policies, which he claimed were backed by his opponent, Sen. John McCain.

In a 97-minute debate Friday, Obama, D-Ill., asserted lack of oversight brought on the current financial turmoil, while McCain, R-Ariz., blamed greed and corruption for Wall Street's woes, and echoed Obama's concerns about the impact of the crisis on Americans across the nation.

"This is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies -- promoted by George Bush, supported by Sen. McCain," Obama said, "a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most, and somehow, prosperity will trickle down."

"It hasn't worked," he added. "And I think that the fundamentals of the economy have to be measured by whether or not the middle class is getting a fair shake. That's why I'm running for president."

McCain said if he is elected, he would address the economic problem of earmarks for pork barrel spending.

"I've got a pen and I'm going to veto every spending bill that comes across my desk," McCain said, vowing to crack down on pork-pushing legislators. "I will make them famous and you will know their names."

After the debate, political pundits were split on the subject of who won. But several, including ABC News political contributor Matthew Dowd, the former chief strategist for President Bush's 2004 presidential campaign, gave a narrow edge to Obama.

"I don't think there was a clear winner, but I think you have to give the possession arrow after the debate to Barack Obama," Dowd said. "Debates are judged by the American public by substance and by style, and how you connect with an audience. And I think on that regard, Barack Obama did a much better job."

The official topics of the debate, hosted by the University of Mississippi, were to be foreign policy and national security, but veteran debate moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS, noting that the subject matter "by definition, includes the global financial crisis," kicked off the debate with questions about the economy, as was widely expected.

Both candidates agreed on the need for a financial rescue package.

"But I want to emphasize one point to all Americans tonight: This isn't the beginning of the end of this crisis," said McCain. "This is the end of the beginning."

Obama said that, in the face of "the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," leaders must "move swiftly" and "move wisely" to address the problems Wall Street has created for Main Street.

As the debate turned to Iraq, Obama noted that he opposed entering Iraq from the beginning, and ticked off the costs of the war.

"We've spent over $600 billion so far, soon to be $1 trillion," Obama said. "We have lost over 4,000 lives. We have seen 30,000 wounded, and most importantly, from a strategic national security perspective, al Qaeda is resurgent, stronger now than at any time since 2001.

"We took our eye off the ball," he added. "And not to mention that we are still spending $10 billion a month when they [Iraqis] have a $79 billion surplus, at a time when we are in great distress here at home."

McCain countered by saying that the next president shouldn't look back and parse the past.

"The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not," McCain said. "The next president of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind.".

The Illinois senator also reiterated his call for more troops in Afghanistan, citing reports from commanders on the ground that the situation is getting worse -- and he accused McCain of an inconsistent approach towards the country.

"We took our eye off Afghanistan," Obama said. "We took our eye off the folks who perpetrated 9/11. They are still sending out videotapes. And, Sen. McCain, nobody is talking about defeat in Iraq, but I have to say we are having enormous problems in Afghanistan because of that decision."

But McCain fired back, saying that his travels through the tribal regions in Afghanistan give him a better perspective on the security needs there.

"So the point is that we will prevail in Afghanistan," McCain said, "but we need the new strategy and we need it to succeed."

McCain went on to deride Obama's plan for troop withdrawal from Iraq.

"If we suffer defeat in Iraq, which Gen. [David] Petraeus predicts we will if we adopted Sen. Obama's set date for withdrawal, then that will have a calamitous effect in Afghanistan, and [on] American national security interests in the region," McCain said. "Sen. Obama doesn't seem to understand there is a connected between the two."

The candidates also offered their overall impressions on U.S. national security.

"I think ... that we have a safer nation [since 9/11], but we are a long way from safe," McCain said.

The Vietnam War veteran, who faced torture as a prisoner of war, stressed the need for well-trained interrogators, "so that we don't ever torture a prisoner ever again.

"We have to make sure that our technological and intelligence capabilities are better," he added. "We have to work more closely with our allies. I know our allies, and I can work much more closely with them."

He also cited his push to form the 9/11 commission as an instance when he met strong opposition from the Bush administration.

Obama agreed that the country is safer now, but added that even though billions have been poured into airport security and potential terror targets have been identified, there are still weak spots, such as chemical sites, transportation systems and ports that need better security.

"And the biggest threat that we face right now is not a nuclear missile coming over the skies," he said. "It's in a suitcase.

"This is why the issue of nuclear proliferation is so important," he added. "The biggest threat to the United States is a terrorist getting their hands on nuclear weapons."

Obama also faulted the Bush administration for fostering a negative perception of the United States in the world, claiming that the world view of this country "is going to make a difference, in terms of our capacity to get cooperation and root out terrorism."

And then things got a little ugly.

Obama tweaked McCain's misstatement earlier this month in an interview when the Republican said he was not sure he would be willing to meet with the prime minister of Spain.

Obama said, "Spain is a NATO ally!" in apparent outrage. "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."

McCain seemed prepared for the line, saying, "I'm not going to set the White House visitors schedule before I'm president of the United States. I don't even have a seal yet," tweaking a much-mocked seal that the Obama campaign had on the candidate's podium during a speech early in the campaign season.

Earlier, Obama had knocked McCain's claim that a statement by Obama on Pakistan showed the younger man's inexperience on foreign policy.

Obama said McCain was right to point out presidents need to be careful about what they say, but noted McCain has threatened extinction for North Korea and sung a flip song about bombing Iran.

McCain then cited what he considered his sage foreign policy calls against putting ill-fated Marines in Beirut in the 1980s, and on the first Gulf War, Kosovo, Somalia and other conflicts.

"I have a record of being involved in these national security issues, which involve the highest responsibility and the toughest decisions that any president can make, and that is to send our young men and women into harm's way," McCain said.

Both candidates spent countless hours preparing for the debate.

Earlier this week, Obama's advisers put him through intense debate preparations in Tampa, Fla., with Greg Craig posing as McCain. The veteran Washington attorney defended former President Clinton during his impeachment proceedings.

However, aides said a trip to Washington to attend a White House meeting on the financial crisis with Bush and McCain Thursday kept Obama from preparing the way he had planned -- with full mock debates Thursday in Florida.

Obama's campaign also noted McCain's years of foreign policy experience give him home court advantage, an apparent attempt to lower expectations for the senator from Illinois.

"If he slips up, makes a mistake, or fails to deliver a game-changing performance," the Obama campaign claimed in a memo, "it will be a serious blow to his campaign."

But ABC News political consultant Torie Clark, who served in both Bush administrations, said Obama might have his own experience advantage stemming from his dogfight with Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"He had more experiences where it was Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton one-on-one almost," Clark said. "So, he's used to the two-person format -- more than McCain. When McCain was debating this spring, it was often a cast of thousands up there. And the fact that he did not deliver a stellar performance did not really stick out as much."

And because McCain is behind in the polls, he might have been considered the debate underdog, ABC News senior political reporter Rick Klein said before the event.

"I do think, in the end, there's more pressure on the person who's down," Klein said. "He's got to do more to shake things up a little bit."

In addition, concerns about the economy are spiking among registered voters. That helped Obama post significant gains over McCain, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.

The week leading up to the debate has taken almost as many turns as the financial markets, which have been on the ropes after the recent shuttering of once-stalwart financial institutions and record-breaking bank failures, as well as the collapse of the mortgage lending industry earlier this year.

The Bush administration has proposed a $700 billion "financial rescue package," but despite a bipartisan summit at the White House, Capitol Hill meetings late into the night Thursday and continued efforts Friday, lawmakers have yet to broker a deal.

Wednesday, after it became increasingly clear that an agreement would not come easily, Republican presidential hopeful McCain said he'd suspend his campaign and head to Washington, initially casting doubt as to whether he'd attend the debate.

His Democratic rival, Obama, maintained his stance that the debate should go forward.

"I'm looking forward to the debate," Obama said before the event. "And look forward after the debate to coming back to Washington and hopefully getting a package done."

Democrats insisted that their candidate could successfully balance the need to deal with the economy with his commitment to the debate.

Lawmakers hope to strike a deal on the financial package before Monday. But for now, at least, the debate will go on -- both in Washington and in Mississippi.

The road to the White House will continue with two more presidential debates: Oct. 7 at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., and Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. The vice presidential candidates, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, for the Democrats and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for the Republicans, square off Oct. 2 at Washington University in St. Louis.

For full coverage of the debates and the presidential campaign, click HERE.

ABC News' John Berman, Jennifer Parker and the staff of ABC News Radio contributed to this report.

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