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In First Debate, Candidates Quarrel On Iraq, Express Optimism for Bailout

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By Michael D. Shear and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 27, 2008

OXFORD, Miss., Sept. 26 -- Sen. Barack Obama sharply criticized Sen. John McCain's judgment on the war in Iraq, repeatedly telling his presidential rival "you were wrong" to rush the nation into battle, directly challenging the Republican nominee on foreign policy as the two met in their first debate of the general-election season.

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McCain aggressively pushed back, accusing Obama of failing to understand that a new approach employed by Gen. David H. Petraeus in Iraq would lead to victory and mocking him as naive for his willingness to meet with some of the world's most brutal leaders.

With 40 days remaining before Election Day and the U.S. economy teetering, the two clashed on taxes, energy policy, Russian aggression in Georgia and the threat posed by Iran. Neither made a serious mistake in an encounter that capped one of the most chaotic weeks of the campaign, nor was either able to claim a decisive victory.

The debate itself almost did not happen. McCain's dramatic midweek announcement that he was suspending his campaign to focus on the nation's financial crisis left the face-off in limbo as both candidates rushed back to Washington on Thursday and plunged themselves into the acrimonious negotiations over a $700 billion economic bailout.

On Friday, McCain reversed his pledge to stay in Washington until those negotiations concluded. And once on stage at the University of Mississippi, it was the exchanges about how to keep the United States safe that put the starkest differences between the two men on display.

"Senator Obama said the 'surge' could not work, said it would increase sectarian violence, said it was doomed to failure," McCain said, focusing on recent improvements in conditions in Iraq. "But yet, after conceding that, he still says that he would oppose the surge if he had to decide that again today."

"John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007," the senator from Illinois shot back. "The war started in 2003."

In rapid-fire succession, Obama accused his rival of being in the wrong more than once as President Bush led the nation to war in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "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. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni. And you were wrong."

Later, McCain's voice dripped with derision as he questioned Obama's statement that he would meet with the leaders of rogue foreign countries, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"So let me get this right: We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, 'We're going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,' and we say, 'No, you're not'?" the senator from Arizona said, as Obama tried to object.

Obama pushed back on McCain's criticism, saying, "I reserve the right, as president of the United States, to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it's going to keep America safe."

In response to the first question of the debate, Obama and McCain discarded the scheduled topic of foreign affairs and waded into a discussion of the nation's financial crisis, with both saying they are optimistic that Congress will agree on a financial bailout plan in the coming days.


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