Economic Jabs, Then Punches On World Affairs

As Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, the city's residents gather on the town square to watch the broadcast.
As Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, the city's residents gather on the town square to watch the broadcast. (By Bruce Newman -- Oxford Eagle Via Associated Press)
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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2008

OXFORD, Miss., Sept. 26 -- John McCain and Barack Obama came to their first debate with clear missions. McCain's was to paint his rival as naive and inexperienced, Obama's was both to prove McCain wrong on that front and to tag his rival as a participant in eight years of failed Bush administration policies at home and abroad.

Each rose to the challenge here Friday night, forcefully scoring points on one another, sparkling at times, but neither emerged as the obvious winner except perhaps to their partisans. There were good exchanges but few big moments of the kind that can change a presidential race.

With the country facing an unresolved financial crisis as big as any since the Great Depression and the two candidates running in a highly competitive race for the White House, this was obviously a debate with enormously high stakes for both McCain and Obama. By the time it was over, it was evident just how large the differences were between them on many of the biggest national security issues that will await the next president -- and some domestic ones as well.

After the tumult of the week in Washington and on Wall Street, it was questionable whether any event could compete in terms of drama, excitement and possibly significance. McCain's high-risk gamble of suspending most campaign activity and returning to Washington to inject himself into negotiations over an economic rescue package threatened either to delay the debate or at a minimum overshadow it.

For a time, it looked like neither was ready to engage the other. They wandered sometimes aimlessly through the first 30 minutes of the 90-minute session, which dealt not only with the financial crisis that threatens the economy -- and nearly scuttled the debate when McCain initially said they should stay in Washington to deal with it -- but also with domestic issues, including budgetary earmarks, tax cuts and health care.

But when the debate turned to the announced topic -- foreign policy and national security -- they came alive. Their exchanges were lively, pointed and revealing. They disagreed over who was right about Iraq and what it will take to end that conflict satisfactorily. Obama said McCain was wrong on the invasion, McCain said Obama was wrong about the surge.

They argued over Afghanistan and who knew better how to deal with the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Obama said McCain and Bush had let Afghanistan slip backward because of their focus on Iraq. McCain said that the same surge policy he supported in Iraq is what will put Afghanistan right.

They squabbled over how to prod Pakistan to deal with terrorist breeding grounds inside its borders. Obama said the United States had wrongly coddled the government of former president Pervez Musharraf, while McCain said Obama does not understand that Pakistan was a failed state when the former general took power.

They got sharp with one another over talking to Iran. Obama defended his view that the United States should be willing to talk directly with Iranian leaders, but McCain mocked his rival as he imagined how a conversation between Obama and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might go.

"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'? Oh, please!"

But Obama argued that while McCain has resisted talks, many others have supported them and that isolating dangerous nations, as he said Bush has done, has only made things worse.

McCain gained strength as the debate wore on, pressing his argument that Obama is naive and inexperienced and doesn't understand a dangerous world. "There are some advantages to experience, and knowledge, and judgment," he said. "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."

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