McCain and Obama spar in first debate

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Senators Barack Obama and John McCain in their first presidential debate

US presidential rivals Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have attacked each other over foreign policy and the economy in their first debate.

Asked about a proposed $700bn (£380bn) bail-out of the US economy, Mr Obama said it was the “final verdict” on eight years of Republican policies.

On Iraq, Mr McCain praised the “surge” strategy, while Mr Obama said the US military had not been “used wisely”.

Senator McCain said he did not believe his rival had the experience to lead.

“I don’t think I need any on-the-job training. I’m ready to go at it right now,” he added.

Senator Obama said Mr McCain had been “wrong” about invading Iraq and that the US to take its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, where it should have been pursuing al-Qaeda.

“We don’t have enough troops to deal with Afghanistan,” he said.

Mr McCain argued that as a result of the surge – which involved sending some 30,000 extra US troops to Iraq – US military strategy was succeeding.

This isn’t the beginning of the end of this crisis. This is the end of the beginning

Senator John McCain
Republican presidential candidate

“We are winning in Iraq and we will come home with victory and with honour,” he said.

Mr McCain said there was “a lot of work to do in Afghanistan” but that he was confident that the top US commander, General David Petraeus, would succeed there.

The BBC’s Kim Ghattas in Washington says early reactions from commentators and viewers suggest there was no clear winner in the debate.

Although Mr McCain appeared to be on more comfortable footing, polls suggest Mr Obama impressed some undecided voters with his performance, our correspondent says.

The televised debate in Oxford, Mississippi, focused largely on foreign policy but began with discussion of the economic crisis gripping the US.

Speaking about the financial bail-out plan under discussion by the US Congress, Mr Obama said: “We have to move swiftly and we have to move wisely.”

Mr McCain said that while he felt happier now Congress was closer to reaching a deal on the bail-out, it would be a long time before the situation was resolved.

“This isn’t the beginning of the end of this crisis,” he said. “This is the end of the beginning if we come out with a package that will keep these institutions stable and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Mr McCain attacked Mr Obama over his record on finance, saying he had asked for millions of dollars in so-called “earmarks” – money for pet projects – as senator for the state of Illinois. Mr Obama rejected that charge.

Both candidates agreed that the bail-out plan would put massive pressure on the budget of the next president and mean cuts in government spending.

Tens of millions of Americans were expected to watch the debate on TV, with only about five weeks to go before the 4 November elections.

‘Serious threat’

Asked about Iran, Mr McCain stressed that Tehran was a threat to the region and, through its interference in Iraq, to US troops deployed there.

John McCain and Barack Obama on dealing with Iran

He outlined a proposal for a “league of democracies” to push through painful sanctions against Tehran that were presently being blocked in bodies like the United Nations because of opposition from Russia.

He criticised Mr Obama for his previously stated willingness to hold talks with the leaders of Iran without preconditions.

Mr Obama rejected that criticism, saying he would reserve the right as president “to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it’s going to keep America safe”.

However, he said he agreed with his Republican rival that “we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran” and the threat that that would pose to Israel, a staunch US ally.

‘Safer today’

Mr McCain accused Mr Obama of “a little bit of naivete” in his initial response to the conflict between Georgia and Russia.

Mr Obama said that recent events meant “our entire Russian approach has to be evaluated because a resurgent and very aggressive Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region”.

Speaking about the so-called war on terror, Mr McCain said he believed the nation was safer than it had been the day after the 11 September 2001 terror attacks.

One of the things I intend to do as president is restore America’s standing in the world

Senator Barack Obama
Democratic presidential candidate

But, he said, there was still a long way to go to make the American people secure.

Mr Obama pointed to the spread of al-Qaeda to some 60 countries and said that the US had to do more to combat that, including improving its own image as a “beacon of light” on rights.

“One of the things I intend to do as president is restore America’s standing in the world,” Mr Obama said.

Mr McCain sought to distance himself from President George W Bush’s administration, which has very low public approval ratings.

“I have opposed the president on spending, on climate change, on torture of prisoners, on Guantanamo Bay, on the way that the Iraq war was conducted,” he said.

“I have a long record and the American people know me very well… a maverick of the Senate.”

Significant progress

Mr McCain had earlier vowed not to attend the forum in Mississippi until Congress approved the bail-out plan, but he reversed his decision after some progress was made towards a deal.

Talks between Congressional leaders and President George W Bush on a proposed $700bn (£380bn) package resumed on Friday morning after ending in deadlock on Thursday evening.

The proposal ran into renewed difficulties when some Republican congressmen withheld their approval, offering an alternative scheme.

In a statement on Friday, Mr Bush conceded that there were disagreements over aspects of the plan, but stressed everyone agreed something substantial had to be done.

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