Presidential candidates spar on economy, Iraq

 

Barack Obama and John McCain offered stark contrasts and exchanged sharp jibes on economic policy and Iraq during their first presidential debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

Neither candidate delivered a game-changing blow but each had powerful moments as Mr McCain stressed his knowledge and experience and Mr Obama presented himself as a more effective agent of change.

The debate was designed as a foreign policy forum but almost half of its 90 minutes were devoted to a discussion of economic policy in the light of the financial crisis facing the United States.

Mr Obama waited less than two minutes before criticising his opponent, linking Mr McCain to the economic policies the Democrat blamed for the current crisis.

“We also have to recognize that this is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, 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,” he said.

“It hasn't worked. And I think that the fundamentals of the economy have to be measured by whether or not the middle class is getting a fair shake.”

Mr McCain turned the economic discussion into a debate on wasteful government spending and tax policy, identifying Ireland’s corporate tax rate as a model for the US.

“Right now, the United States of American business pays the second-highest business taxes in the world, 35 percent. Ireland pays 11 percent,” he said (underestimating the Irish rate by 1.5 per cent)

“Now, if you're a business person, and you can locate any place in the world, then, obviously, if you go to the country where it's 11 per cent tax versus 35 percent, you're going to be able to create jobs, increase your business, make more investment, et cetera.”

Mr Obama’s most effective moment came after Mr McCain accused him of showing poor judgment in opposing the troop surge in Iraq, which the Republican credited with turning around the US military campaign there.

“John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. 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,” Mr Obama said.

“You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong.”

The two men showed contrasting styles as well as policies, with Mr Obama addressing many of his remarks directly to his opponent, whom he often called by his first name. Mr McCain refused to look at the Democrat, even when he was attacking the man he consistently referred to as Senator Obama.

The fate of last night’s debate had been uncertain for two days after Mr McCain suspended his campaign on Wednesday to return to Washington because of the financial crisis. The Republican had said he would not attend the presidential debate until the two parties in Congress and the White House reached a consensus on a proposed $700 billion financial rescue plan.

Less than 10 hours before the debate was due to start, Mr McCain changed his mind and left Washington for Mississippi before a deal was clearly in sight. He said little about the suspension of his campaign during last night’s debate and offered few clues as to his precise role in the negotiations on Capitol Hill.

After the debate, both campaigns claimed victory, although instant polls for the television networks gave Mr Obama an edge.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe claimed that his candidate had not only won the discussion about the economy – where Democrats are closer to the public mood – but also emerged on top on foreign policy.

“This was supposed to be John McCain’s debate but Mr Obama commanded the foreign policy part,” he said.

“What John McCain did tonight was offer no case for change.”

Mr McCain’s campaign pointed out that Mr Obama had said at least eight times during the debate that the Republican was right on one issue or another.

“The whole debate was fought on John McCain’s ground and he won the debate by a wide margin,” said McCain strategist Charlie Black.

Late last night, Mr Obama won praise from Hillary Clinton, his former rival in the Democratic primaries, who emerged on top during most of their 22 debates.

“Tonight Barack Obama displayed beyond a doubt that he understands both the gravity of the financial crisis facing America, and the challenges we face in Iraq and around the world. Senator McCain offered only more of the same failed policies of the Bush Administration. America deserves better,” Mrs Clinton said.

“I stood next to Barack Obama in 22 debates and tonight epitomised why millions are joining me in standing with him and working hard to ensure he is the next President of the United States.”