Honours even as rivals lock horns
Wednesday, 01 October 2008

It was a debate that almost didn't happen after John McCain threatened not to turn up. But in the first of three confrontations, Barack Obama and his Republican opponent traded blows over America's role in the world without either landing a knock-out punch, report Ewen MacAskill and Suzanne Goldenberg from Oxford, Mississippi

The Observer Online

Barack Obama emerged a stronger candidate from the presidential debate yesterday after demonstrating that he could match John McCain on national security, the Democratic candidate's supposed area of greatest weakness.

During the 98-minute debate, both men delivered a series of hard jabs on the Wall Street crisis, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, but neither landed the blow that could have changed the course of the election.
There were no major gaffes, no defining moments, but the draw suited Obama better than McCain. The Democratic candidate had been under pressure to reassure voters with doubts about whether he has the judgment to be commander-in-chief.
The forthcoming two debates will focus on the economy, on which Obama is seen to have a slight edge, and his campaign went on the offensive yesterday to try to exploit this. David Plouffe, his campaign manager, told reporters yesterday that Obama had passed the commander-in-chief threshold. 'Last night, we not only passed it, we flew by it.'
But the McCain camp was unwilling to concede. 'Obama was on the defensive the whole time,' said Charles Black, a senior adviser. 'McCain was able to show experience and judgment and knowledge on all the issues.'
Obama was due to hold rallies in North Carolina and Virginia, which traditionally vote Republican in presidential elections. His campaign also released a new television advertisement, chiding McCain for failing to say the words 'middle class' in the debate.
McCain was due to head from Oxford, Mississippi, to Washington to rejoin negotiations on the financial crisis.
McCain's strategy for Friday night's encounter was to sow doubts about Obama's foreign policy experience and his judgment. He accused Obama of lacking foreign policy and national security credentials, repeatedly bringing up the word 'experience' to highlight his own decades-long involvement in the Senate. He portrayed Obama as unfit to be president, dismissing him as 'naive' and dangerous. 'Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand,' McCain said in several variations. 'I honestly don't believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience.'
But Obama did enough by just standing his ground, challenging McCain's record on the Iraq war and swapping jibes over how to deal with Iran.
Instant polls awarded the widely anticipated debate at the University of Mississippi to Obama, but pundits were divided, with some giving the night to McCain. The Wall Street Journal called it a draw, while the New York Times leant towards Obama.
The encounter did not live up to the expectations created by last week's drama, which saw McCain threatening to boycott the debate because of the $700bn Wall Street bail-out crisis.
Indeed, economic turmoil dominated the first half of the debate. In a format in which style can be as decisive as substance, Obama offered short answers, maintained his cool and kept his eyes fixed on McCain when it was his opponent's turn to speak.
At one point - when McCain accused him of being as stubborn as George W. Bush - Obama guffawed.
The performance came as a relief to Obama's campaign, which stopped preparation for the debate to focus on the financial crisis. Obama's debate coach, Greg Craig, said that Obama had devoted two or three hours on Friday to cramming on the economy. 'He was totally confident on a wide range of issues,' said Craig. 'He owned that stage.'
McCain avoided eye contact with Obama and barely bothered to hide his contempt, smirking and shooting off a number of snide comments. Although he has a reputation for having a good sense of humour, there was little sign of it.
Obama's strategy was to link McCain to Bush, and cast the Republican candidate as a continuation of one of the most unpopular leaders in US history. He blamed eight years of the Bush administration for the financial crisis, and claimed McCain had backed Bush throughout most of that time.
'It's been your president, whom you said you agreed with 90 per cent of the time, who supported this orgy of spending. You voted for almost all of his budgets. To stand here and say that after eight years you're going to lead on controlling spending and balancing our tax cuts for middle-class families,' Obama said. 'It's kind of hard to swallow.'
McCain opted for a populist appeal, saying: 'Somehow, in Washington today - and, I am afraid, on Wall Street - greed is rewarded, and corruption - or certainly failure to carry out our responsibility is rewarded.' McCain, who has previously admitted he is uncomfortable on economic terrain, quickly shifted the discussion of the bail-out to government spending. He made the radical suggestion for a freeze on all government spending.
Obama shot back that that would be like taking a hatchet to a problem that required a scalpel.
But the debate began to warm up only when the two turned to the Iraq war, with McCain claiming credit for the reduction in violence produced by the 'surge', the 30,000 extra US troops sent to the country last year.
Obama said that McCain behaved as if the war in Iraq had begun only last year - instead of in 2003. He went on to list a series of what he said were his opponent's misjudgments.
'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.'
He applied the same argument to McCain's judgments on Afghanistan and the war on terror, accusing him of consistently under-estimating the dangers.
'While you were focused on Iraq, you said well, we can "muddle through" Afghanistan. You don't muddle through the central front on terror and you don't muddle through going after bin Laden. You don't muddle through in stamping out the Taliban.'
McCain unsettled Obama when he claimed that US military leaders suggested Obama's plan to pull all US troops out of Iraq by the middle of 2010 was dangerous. Obama interrupted several times, saying that this was not the case.
He also attacked Obama's plan to negotiate with the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the country's alleged nuclear weapons programme, without preconditions.
'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,' McCain said.
Instant poll reaction
Instant polls, taken before the spin masters and TV commentators spoke, gave Barack Obama victory.
A CBS poll of undecided voters found that 39 per cent thought the Democrat won, while 25 per cent gave the edge to McCain. Thirty-six per cent saw the contest as a draw.
Insider Advantage polling also saw a virtual draw, with 42 per cent saying Obama won, and 41 per cent saying McCain did.
In a CNN poll, 51 per cent of viewers thought Obama came out stronger from the encounter, while 38 per cent thought McCain delivered the better performance. However, the sample was weighted towards Democrats.

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