The rivals for the US presidency clashed bitterly in their first presidential debate last night as Barack Obama sought to tie John McCain to the failed policies of the Bush administration at home and abroad.
Mr Obama, seen by voters as weaker on foreign affairs, was judged to have held his own in the debate, while Mr McCain did not manage to expose any major weaknesses in his opponent. But his contempt for his rival was on display throughout, as he could not bring himself to look his opponent directly in the eye during the debate.
Standing ramrod stiff behind the lectern Mr McCain derided his rivals foreign inexperience, proclaiming that he had neither “the knowledge or experience” to be president. Mr McCain responded to Mr Obama's barbs by characterising his much younger adversary as naïve and dangerously ill-informed on foreign policy, especially over the issue of ending the war in Iraq. There was peril in the debate for both men. Mr Obama, 47 and a first term Senator needed to persuade voters that he has the gravitas and judgement to be commander in chief, while Mr McCain. 72, has slipped badly in the polls amid gnawing doubts about his grasp of economic issues.
Both candidates need to reach undecided voters and an instant CBS poll said that 40% of the uncommitted who watched the debate tonight thought Barack Obama was the winner. 22% thought John McCain won. 38% saw it as a draw. A wide majority, some 68% said that Mr Obama would make the right decision about averting disaster for the economy while only 41% thought Mr McCain would.
Foreign policy is the war-hero McCain’s area of greatest expertise and the poll revealed that 55% of people thought he would make the right decisions about Iraq compared to 49% for Mr Obama a margin the campaign will not b happy with.
From the outset of the 90 minute debate - which was almost called off because of the economic crisis - Mr. Obama was on the offensive mocking his rival for having said that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” when it is in freefall. He accused him of promoting a failed Republican philosophy of deregulation that had caused havoc in the financial markets
“This is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies, promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain,” Mr. Obama, said. He described it as “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.”
Mr McCain responded that his rival was a typical tax-and-spend liberal on economic issues. “It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left,” he joked in one of the lighter moments of the tense encounter.
The debate was held in Oxford, Mississippi, the poorest state in the union and it gave tens of millions of Americans their first opportunity to judge the candidates side by side. Voters often choose a candidate based on their comfort level or body language and Mr McCain, who seemed angry and brittle did not come across like the proverbial person to go out for a drink with, that voters are looking for.
There were numerous sharp exchanges throughout the 90 minute debate, but no knockout blows were delivered although both campaigns claimed victory.
It took 40 minutes for the debate to turn to America’s role in the world with the war in Iraq providing some explosive moments between the two candidates.
“Incredibly” Mr McCain mocked, his rival had not gone to Iraq for 900 day, sneering that “Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.”
“That’s not true, that’s not true,” Mr. Obama said under his voice.
“Senator Obama said the surge could not work, said it would increase sectarian violence, said it was doomed to failure,” Mr McCain declared. “Recently on a television program he said it exceeded our wildest expectations. But yet, after conceding that, he still says that he would oppose the surge if he had to decide that again today.”
Mr. Obama whose meteoric political rise owe much to his early opposition to the war responded: “You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003. And at the time, when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. 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.”
This prompted a bitter response from Mr McCain about the defeat “that would result from his plan for withdrawal."
“All of that sacrifice would be lost if we followed Senator Obama’s plan if we had specific dates for withdrawal,” he said.
Mr. Obama said that Mr McCain had praised President Bush’s policies which had only brought about failure. “Over the last eight years, this administration, along with Senator McCain, has been solely focused on Iraq,” he said “That has been their priority. That is where all their resources have gone. In the meantime, Osama Bin Laden is still out there. He is not captured. He is not killed. Al Qai'da is resurgent.”
They also clashed over the issue of presidential meetings with leaders of Iran and other enemies of the US. Mr. McCain launched a withering attack saying that meeting the Iranian leadership would reveal weakness by US
Mr. Obama countered that he would meet with President. Ahmadinejad after extensive preparation and that diplomatic contacts were vital to avoid war.
"We do not expect to solve every problem before we initiate talks," Mr. Obama said. "The Bush administration has come to recognize that it hasn’t worked."