Candidates Each Claim Debate Victory in New Ads

Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain engaged in the first presidential debate 40 days before election day. The candidates sparred over the economy and foreign policy experience.
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2008; 4:16 PM

GREENSBORO, N.C., Sept. 27 -- The two presidential campaigns launched a war of ads and press releases Saturday as each side claimed victory in their first general election showdown at the University of Mississippi Friday night.

Appearing at a rally here, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) ripped into Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) remarks in Oxford about the economy -- but more for what his GOP opponent didn't say.

"The truth is, through 90 minutes of debating, John McCain had a lot to say about me, but he had nothing to say about you. He didn't even say the words 'middle class.' Didn't say the words 'working people,' " Obama told a cheering crowd of about 20,000 people on a rainy Saturday morning.

The middle-class omission also is the subject of a new Obama television ad that the campaign rolled out this morning, asserting, "McCain doesn't get it. Barack Obama does."

A new McCain spot revives the Republican nominee's charge late in the debate that Obama had opposed funding for U.S. troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. But rather than debate footage, the ad features an old quote from Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Obama's running mate and former primary opponent, accusing Obama of trying to "make a political point" by objecting to the funding. Obama, along with other Democrats, were holding out for a withdrawal timetable, to the irritation of senators who wanted to move the money quickly.

The exchange over the funding vote was among the more heated of the evening. As McCain phrased it, Obama was seeking to "cut off funds for the troops." Obama shot back that he had voted for a separate measure that packaged the funding with a withdrawal timetable -- a bill that McCain had voted against, which meant he had technically voted against funding too.

"I opposed funding a mission that had no timetable, and was open-ended, giving a blank check to George Bush," Obama asserted. "We had a difference on the timetable. We didn't have a difference on whether or not we were going to be funding troops."

Addressing his supporters, with Biden at his side in a rare joint appearance, Obama sounded more confrontational than he did last night. On stage, he had even agreed with McCain on several points, to the delight of McCain supporters, who cited the references repeatedly afterward as an example of McCain's command.

But today the gloves came off. Obama ridiculed McCain's sudden decision earlier this week to suspend his campaign amid financial bailout negotiations as "looking for a photo-op." He described his opponent as grasping for a strategy on the economy. "Doesn't really know what to do," Obama said. "Hasn't been clear what to say."

He even brushed off McCain's zinger condemning a federal earmark to study the Montana grizzly bear population. "That's an old line he's been using since the beginning of his campaign," Obama said dismissively.

But both sides projected confidence that the debate had broken their way.

The McCain campaign fired off four "volumes" of reviews about his performance, depicted in various pundits and editorial writers as "emphatic," "assured," and "authoritative." Some political experts scored McCain the winner; others gave the night to Obama.

McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds dismissed the new Obama ad and his comments in Greensboro, noting that McCain had criticized Obama's tax and spending policies for their potential harm to the middle class -- even if McCain didn't use the exact words. "Barack Obama has a selective memory," Bounds exclaimed.

But for their part, Obama aides were thrilled with their candidate's debate performance. They believed the Democratic nominee cleared a major hurdle with undecided voters by projecting confidence, giving crisp answers, and standing his ground when pressed by McCain on a range of foreign policy issues, including the fate of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the challenges posed by Russia and Iran.

But Obama has shown time and again as a candidate that he is loathe to twist the knife. He did not deliver the knock-out blow in Oxford as some of his supporters were angling for, given the Republican nominee's uneven performance over the past two weeks, starting with his observation at the outset of the financial crisis that the economy was "fundamentally" sound.

It was a performance they believe voters saw more of on Friday night. "John McCain has a problem right now. Voters think he's out of touch," said Obama campaign manager David Plouffe. "He did nothing to address that last night."

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