McCain vs Obama: All square

There were no knock-out blows landed, but this was one of the most high-quality exchanges ever between two American presidential candidates
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It was the debate that was almost swept away by a financial tempest. But when John McCain and Barack Obama did square up to each other on Friday night, they produced one of the best, and almost certainly the most watched, presidential debates ever. How many minds they changed is another matter. In this battle pitting age against youth, experience against promise, the two clashed on the economy, Iraq, al-Qa'ida and Iran. But there was no knock-out blow.

Some snap polls yesterday suggested that Mr McCain was the winner on points. Others seemed to indicate that Mr Obama had had the better of the exchanges. Possibly it will go down as a draw – which would be of more use to the Democrat than the Republican, who is slipping behind in the race, and in increasing need of what the pundits call a "game-changer". At the University of Mississippi, neither man achieved one.

As was to be expected, Mr Obama was more convincing on the burning issue of the economy, lambasting Republican laissez faire policies as responsible for the present debacle, and tying his opponent to George Bush, the most unpopular president of modern times. Indeed, to bolster his shaky credentials on matters economic, Mr McCain had threatened to stay in Washington to help negotiate a rescue package, even if that meant missing the debate. In the event, no deal emerged, but Mr McCain turned up nonetheless. And in the final hour of proceedings, it was he who came across as the more knowledgeable and sure-footed, as the subject shifted to foreign policy and national security, the specialities of the former war hero and prisoner in Vietnam during his 26 years on Capitol Hill.

"I've looked into Putin's eyes," he said of meeting the Russian Prime Minister, underlining his familiarity and personal dealings with world leaders, "and I saw three letters: KGB." Such pithy lines are par for the McCain course. The winner of a presidential debate is usually the one that exceeds expectations, however low, while the loser clearly comes up short. On Friday, taut exchanges abounded, but without real surprises.

Time and again, Mr McCain hammered his rival for his lack of experience. "That is a little naive, come on," he sneered at Mr Obama's reiterated readiness to meet hostile foreign leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran (whose name, unfortunately, the 72-year-old Arizona Senator had difficulty in pronouncing). On every question he produced a variant on his mantra. "Senator Obama doesn't understand", he would say, then "Senator Obama doesn't get it", before uttering with a despairing roll of the eyes that "Senator Obama still doesn't understand."

In fact, his opponent gave pretty much as good as he got. Almost inevitably, the fiercest argument was over Iraq, with the Republican mocking his opponent for his doubts about the troop surge that has brought a measure of stability to the country. In reply, Mr Obama reminded him that he had opposed the war from the outset. "John, you like to pretend the war started in 2007," he hit back at one point. "The war started in 2003."

Throughout, Mr Obama was professorial and unflustered, displaying the hallmark cool which sometimes so irritates his critics. "The key question was whether Obama would get over the bar as a president and commander-in-chief," Norman Ornstein, a veteran political expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said afterwards. "That is the key to this election. And I believe he cleared the bar pretty easily."

A key question is how Mr McCain's condescension went down with viewers. For months, his campaign has portrayed Mr Obama as a wimpish neophyte, too young and raw to be entrusted with the nation's security. Plainly, he scorns his opponent, just as he visibly scorned his rival Mitt Romney during the primaries. Barely once did he turn to look at Mr Obama during the 90-minute duel, conducted from behind lecterns on the bare stage. Throughout, Mr Obama referred to him as "John", but for Mr McCain it was always a dry, disdainful "Senator Obama". The tactic was designed to emphasise Mr McCain's gravitas and qualifications for the Oval Office. It may have worked on Friday – but hasn't always done in a similar setting. In his first debate with George Bush in 2000, for example, Al Gore did not help himself when he was heard sighing in exasperation at his opponent's answers. Polls suggested many voters, particularly women, saw the then Vice-President as arrogant and rude. Mr McCain may conceivably have done himself an equal disservice this time.

By and large, however, at least by the usual standards of such occasions, this was a high-quality debate, setting out clear differences between two informed and articulate men – even if it took a while to get going. In the economic portion, Jim Lehrer, the moderator, almost had to beg the candidates to engage each another directly. But no one could complain it lacked substance.

There were, of course, evasions. Neither faced up to the bleak truth that in America's current economic predicament, some campaign promises would have to be jettisoned. Mr McCain seemed to be saying that eliminating wasteful spending would do the trick; Mr Obama stuck to his promise that tax cuts were on the way for 95 per cent of workers. It was the Democrat who came nearest to speaking the unspeakable when he said: "There's never been a country on earth that saw its economy decline but maintained its military superiority."

So where does the debate leave Campaign 2008? Throughout last week, Mr Obama had been edging ahead, propelled by an economic crisis which invariably favours the opposition party. A CNN poll found that viewers by 51 to 38 per cent believed that Mr Obama did better but it will be days, perhaps, before a clear verdict emerges.

As a rule, the first debate is the most important and most watched – Friday's may have drawn a domestic audience of 100 million or more – as viewers have their first chance to measure up the choice on offer in November. But this year may be different.

Mr McCain and Mr Obama provided no killer moments: no bullseye barb that visibly deflates an opponent, no gaffe that reinforces an existing perception of a candidate (such as the claim in 1976 by Gerald Ford, who was already regarded as a bit clueless, that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet domination) – and no single line that boiled a campaign down to its essence (such as Ronald Reagan's simple question during his 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?").

But such knockout blows are rare, and debates often have far less impact on the final outcome than the surrounding hoopla might suggest. Four years ago, John Kerry slaughtered George Bush in their first face-off, on foreign policy. Much good it did him. This time the two presidential debates that lie ahead, in Nashville on 7 October and in New York eight days later, may be the key to an election that could still go either way. But there will still be almost three weeks for mistakes to be corrected before polling day on 4 November. For the moment, though, it is advantage, narrowly, to Mr Obama. If the election were held tomorrow, he would probably win. And the longer the financial crisis persists, the more he is likely to gain from an issue that traditionally favours Democrats. Mr McCain, by contrast, remains yoked to Bush on the economy, for all his efforts on Friday to break the shackle.

But there is still a long way to go, and the choice before American voters is as stark, and momentous, as any in modern times. On the one hand is the youth and untested promise of a man who will change the way the world looks on the US. On the other is a politician of a more heroic pre-baby boom generation, who would be the oldest man to assume the presidency. In the debate Mr McCain had no embarrassing "senior moments". But his references sometimes betrayed his age – to the Normandy landings, and to Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz, who few under 50 will have heard of. On Friday in Mississippi, the 20th century was pitted against the 21st. Which man will Americans prefer? In 37 days' time, the answer will be known.

The campaign week

Sunday: A poll suggests race may be costing Obama 6 per cent of potential support among Democrats. Pro-McCain groups target key rust belt swing state districts with ads highlighting Obama's ties to his controversial former pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright.

Monday: The McCain camp lashes out at 'The New York Times' over claims that campaign manager Rick Davis was paid $2m to lobby for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The paper is "150 per cent in the tank for Obama", a spokesman says.

Tuesday: Sarah Palin debuts on the international stage, meeting world leaders at the UN, including Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari, who calls her "gorgeous". Any gain in credibility, however, is wiped out by a disastrous "deer in the headlights" interview with Katie Couric of CBS two days later.

Wednesday: An ABC News/ 'Washington Post' poll puts Obama ahead by 52 points to 43, the first time either candidate has scored over 50 per cent. McCain suspends his campaign to return to Washington to deal with the financial crisis. Some suggest unkindly the two events are not unconnected, but McCain says he will not take part in Friday's debate unless a rescue package has been agreed.

Thursday: Day of chaos in the capital. A bailout deal is almost reached, before House Republicans revolt against the plan, defying their own President. Democrats say the rebellion is a gimmick, aimed at saving face for McCain. Dissident Republicans say Obama is colluding in a plan to rescue Wall Street fat cats.

Friday: Still no bailout breakthrough as Republicans say they will not be rolled over. McCain bows to public demands he should take part in the first candidates' debate, in Mississippi.

Saturday: The consensus after Friday night's clash is that neither man landed a knockout blow. Pundits believe McCain was ahead on points, though Obama kept up well on foreign affairs, his opponent's specialist subject. Snap polls lean towards Obama, with women apparently disliking McCain's sarcasm.

Rupert Cornwell