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.
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.
The Republican nominee said bipartisanship would carry the day. "We have finally seen Republicans and Democrats sitting down and negotiating together and coming up with a package," McCain said.
Obama laid out his own priorities for the federal bailout plan before training his fire on McCain, linking him to the unpopular president.
"We also have to recognize that this is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, 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," he said.
McCain said Obama would bring higher taxes and more spending to the White House at a time when the country could ill afford them, and mocked his assertions that he could bring bipartisanship to Washington. "Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the Senate," McCain said. "It's hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left."
Although McCain has spoken critically of the bailout, and worked with House conservatives who objected to the original White House plan, he told moderator Jim Lehrer that he is likely to vote for the plan.
"Sure, sure," he responded, when the PBS host pressed him on his stance on the bailout.
Both declined to acknowledge that the package's estimated $700 billion cost would force them to radically alter their own spending plans.
After more than half an hour, Lehrer steered the debate to foreign policy. The two candidates had an emotional exchange over the bracelets they each wear in memory of U.S. soldiers who died in Iraq, underscoring the deep divide created by the war.
"He was 22 years old and he was killed in combat outside of Baghdad, Matthew Stanley, before Christmas last year. This was last August, a year ago. And I said, 'I will -- I will wear his bracelet with honor,' " McCain said, recounting a conversation with Stanley's mother. "And then she said, 'But Senator McCain, I want you to do everything -- promise me one thing, that you'll do everything in your power to make sure that my son's death was not in vain.' "
Obama responded by relating the story of Sgt. Ryan D. Jopek, whose bracelet he wears. Jopek's mother gave it to Obama when they met in Green Bay, Wis. "She asked me, 'Can you please make sure another mother is not going through what I'm going through?' " Obama said.
The format of the debate was designed to encourage a free exchange between the candidates, but for most of the session they spoke to Lehrer, who was seated at a desk between the lecterns, as opposed to each other.
At one point, when Obama derided McCain for proclaiming last week that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong," Lehrer urged him, "Say it directly to him." Obama responded, "Well, John, 10 days ago, you said the fundamentals of the economy are sound." McCain, 72, shot back to Lehrer, joking about his age, "Are you afraid I couldn't hear him?"
But there were few light moments in the 90-minute session. McCain repeatedly cast Obama as naive, while the Democrat sought to link his opponent to the highly unpopular president, especially on the economy and Iraq policy. At the end, McCain stated unequivocally that "I honestly don't believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience" to be president.
McCain announced that he would return to Washington in the early hours of Saturday morning to resume negotiations on the bailout plan. As of late Friday, Obama was still planning to attend campaign rallies on Saturday in Greensboro, N.C., and Fredericksburg, Va., and to speak to the Congressional Black Caucus at a dinner in Washington on Saturday night.
McCain and Obama are slated to meet two more times in the coming weeks, with debates scheduled for Oct. 7 in Nashville and Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in New York. The vice presidential candidates, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., are scheduled to debate Thursday in St. Louis.