Candidates Accuse Each Other of Recklessness on Economy, Military

Sept. 26: McCain speaks during his first presidential debate with Obama at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss. (AP)

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John McCain explicitly portrayed Barack Obama as “dangerous” and “naive” on the world stage Friday, in a tense and wide-ranging debate that focused as much on the economy as it did on foreign policy.

Obama, meanwhile, repeatedly accused his rival of being President Bush’s protege, dismissing him as out-of-touch with the working class and simply mistaken on the Iraq war.

Both candidates used their first presidential debate, held at the University of Mississippi, to cast each other as reckless and unsteady at a critical time in American history.

“There are some advantages to experience and knowledge and judgment, and I honestly don’t believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience,” McCain said at the close of the 90-minute bout, claiming he’s been involved “in virtually every major national security challenge” of the past 20 years.

“You were wrong” on Iraq, Obama repeated three times at one point in the debate. “John, you like to pretend the war began in 2007.”

The face-off was meant to focus on foreign policy, ostensibly giving the Republican presidential nominee a platform to highlight his decades of experience on the world stage.

But with the current economic crisis confounding lawmakers on Capitol Hill, moderator Jim Lehrer kept the candidates on the economy for the first 40 minutes.

Obama accused his rival of wanting to follow “the policies of President Bush” by giving massive tax cuts to the wealthiest corporations.

“You voted for almost all of (Bush’s) budgets,” Obama said. “To stand here after almost eight years and say you’re gonna lead on controlling spending … I think is just kind of hard to swallow.”

McCain accused Obama of being an extreme liberal on spending.

“Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate. It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far left,” McCain said, casting himself as the scourge of pork-barrel spenders and accusing Obama of heedlessly requesting nearly $1 billion in earmarks in his first Senate term.

As the debate moved back into foreign policy terrain, the candidates traded sharp barbs over the Iraq war and how to handle nations like Pakistan and Iran.

McCain charged that Obama had been wrong not to support the introduction of 30,000 additional troops last year, a move that significantly tamped down violence.

“Senator Obama refuses to acknowledge we are winning in Iraq,” he said, warning that U.S. forces would risk defeat in Iraq if the administration set the kind of withdrawal timeline that Obama advocates.

He criticized Obama for saying he’d be willing to unilaterally strike at terrorist targets inside Pakistan’s borders if the Pakistani government would not cooperate. And he scolded Obama for saying he’d meet with leaders like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“This is dangerous. It isn’t just naïve, it’s dangerous,” he said.

Obama countered that “our efforts of isolation have actually accelerated their effort to get nuclear weapons.”

Obama acknowledged the situation in Iraq had improved since the surge but said that war was distracting the U.S. military from going after terrorist leader Usama bin Laden and quelling violence in Afghanistan.

The Illinois senator focused on the original decision to go to war, and questioned McCain’s judgment in supporting it.

“The war started in 2003.” he said. “At the time when the war started you said it was gonna be quick and easy … you were wrong.”

In the opening moments of the debate, both candidates said they felt optimistic about the negotiations over financial bailout legislation on Capitol Hill.

“We have to move swiftly, and we have to move wisely,” Obama said.

“I’m feeling a little better tonight,” McCain said. “We are seeing for the first time in a long time, Republicans and Democrats together sitting down trying to work out a solution to this fiscal crisis that we’re in.”

Asked directly whether he intends to vote for a rescue plan taking shape in Congress, McCain said, “I hope so.”

“We haven’t seen the language yet,” Obama said. “I do think there is constructive work being done.”

The two rivals took the stage at the University of Mississippi after a week of wrangling over the rescue package, and a set of surprise maneuvers by McCain’s campaign.

It was only late Friday morning that debate organizers found out for certain the prime-time match-up would be going forward. McCain on Wednesday called for the debate to be delayed until lawmakers took action on the financial rescue package, but in an announcement shortly before noon Friday said he would travel to Oxford.

The political jockeying, both on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill, coupled with ongoing financial turmoil, placed the economy at the forefront of a debate that was intended to focus squarely on foreign policy.

The debate was a chance for Obama to answer criticism about his readiness to lead, but it was also a chance for McCain to regain his footing. The Republican presidential nominee took a political risk by suspending his campaign Wednesday to head to Washington to work on the legislation, and got bruised Thursday after Democrats and Obama’s campaign accused him of disrupting the delicate negotiations.

The high-stakes summit Thursday with President Bush, congressional leaders and both presidential candidates, ended on, by all accounts, a bad note. On Friday, though, senior lawmakers expressed optimism they were getting back on track and moving toward an agreement.

Columnist Charles Krauthammer said the debate probably ended in a “draw,” but that it could help McCain recover from the turmoil of the past two days.

“I’d be surprised if McCain gets a jump in the polls as a result of this,” he said, but “it does end the drama of the McCain week.”

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