McCain, Obama at Ole Miss

OXFORD, Miss. (MCT): Against the backdrop of a reeling economy, Barack Obama and John McCain attacked each other’s foreign policy judgment in their first debate Friday night, offering tough talk on Iran and competing visions on Iraq.

Obama sought to undercut his opponent’s extra decades on the world stage by painting him as dangerously hawkish, while McCain repeatedly questioned his opponent’s fundamental understanding of foreign affairs.

“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.”

Story continues after live blog.

Obama lauded the efforts of U.S. troops in Iraq but said “that was a tactic designed to contain the damage of the previous four years of mismanagement of this war. John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. … When the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy.”

McCain retorted with condescension.

“I’m afraid that Sen. Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy,” he said.

Though the debate was planned to be on foreign policy, the first half focused on the Wall Street crisis. Moderator Jim Lehrer prodded the senators for more specifics on their views of the Wall Street bailout and to engage each other directly on the economy, Iraq and other topics.

McCain shrugged off Lehrer’s effort to pin him down on whether he will vote for whatever bailout plan emerges from Congress.

“Sure,” he said, tamping down speculation that he has positioned himself to oppose the eventual bailout to score political points, show himself to be a maverick and to distance himself from President Bush and Obama.

But the issue is more complex, he said. “A lot of us saw this train wreck coming,” McCain said, defending his call for the resignation of Bush-appointed Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox, likening that to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s offer to resign after the invasion of Normandy.

“We’ve got to also start holding people accountable,” he said.

Both senators agreed that the crisis will put a huge crimp on their priorities as president.

McCain proposed a spending freeze on all federal spending except for defense, veterans care and entitlement programs.

“The problem with a spending freeze is you’re using a hatchet where you need a scalpel,” Obama said, accusing McCain of supporting an “orgy of spending” presided over by President Bush.

And Obama derided his rival’s focus on spending restraint as simplistic. “Eliminating earmarks alone is not a recipe for how we’re going to get the middle class back on track,” he said.

In one testy exchange, McCain called out his opponent as someone who can’t figure out how to act in a bipartisan way because “it’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left.”

“John mentioned me being wildly liberal,” Obama shot back. “Mostly that’s just me opposing George Bush’s wrongheaded policies since I’ve been in Congress.”

During the debate, McCain rushed through some of his stock lines so fast he mangled them.

His oft-told joke about $3 million spent studying the DNA of bears in Montana fell flat with a punch line about whether that was a criminal or “paternal” case (he meant paternity). His tough talk on pork-barrel spending came out as a threat to block every federal outlay. “I’ve got a pen,” he said, gesturing with his Sharpie, “and I’m going to veto every single spending bill that crosses my desk.”

Televised debates have been a fixture in presidential campaigns since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met in 1960. But this one almost didn’t happen.

McCain dropped a bombshell Wednesday afternoon by announcing he would boycott the event unless Congress and White House hammered out a deal to address the Wall Street financial crisis.

An extraordinary White House summit Thursday with President Bush, Obama and congressional leaders from both parties ended without a deal. And the impact of McCain’s involvement remains in dispute.

In any case, late Friday morning McCain sent word he would fly to Oxford, Miss., after all _ even though a deal has yet to be completed. And late Friday, he said he would return to Washington to keep pushing for a legislative breakthrough this weekend.

McCain supporters such as Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and an erstwhile rival for the GOP nomination, called it a “very courageous thing” for him to set campaigning aside.

Democrats scoffed.

“Sen. McCain seems to want to get photo ops, and disrupt the negotiations, and it hasn’t worked,” said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who predicted that the debate would leave more voters than ever comfortable with the idea of Obama as commander-in-chief.

Mississippians were certainly glad the debate came together.

“It was a political ploy,” Obama backer Gloria Wilson, 55, a retired kindergarten teacher from Aberdeen, Miss., said of McCain’s pre-debate brinkmanship. “I don’t know if it’s because he’s down in the polls or he was just unprepared for the debate.”

Indeed, Obama has pulled into a slight lead in polls this week.

But one Ole Miss student, junior Leah Tolbert from Philadelphia, Miss. _ holding a “Rebels Love McCain” sign at a pre-debate campus festival _ lauded his focus on the economic crisis.

“He’s making presidential decisions before he’s president,” she said. “It shows that he’s a leader and a maverick.”

(c) 2008, Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.