OXFORD, Miss. (AP) - John McCain accused Barack Obama of
compiling "the most liberal voting record in the United States
Senate" Friday night as the two rivals clashed over taxes,
spending, the war in Iraq and more in an intense first debate of
the White House campaign. "Mostly that's just me opposing George
Bush's wrong-headed policies," shot back the Democrat.
Obama said his Republican rival has been a loyal supporter of
the unpopular president across the past eight years, adding that
the current economic crisis is "a final verdict on eight years of
failed economic policies promoted by President Bush and supported
by Sen. McCain."
The two men were polite but pointed as they debated at close
quarters for 90 minutes on the University of Mississippi campus.
McCain accused his younger rival of an "incredible thing of
voting to cut off funds for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan," a
reference to legislation that cleared the Senate more than a year
Obama disputed that, saying he had opposed funding in a bill
that presented a "blank check" to the Pentagon while McCain had
opposed money in legislation that included a timetable for troop
Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2002, before he was a
member of Congress, while McCain voted in the Senate to authorize
"You were wrong" on Iraq, Obama repeated three times in
succession. "John, you like to pretend the war began in 2007."
McCain replied that Obama has refused to acknowledge the success
of the troop buildup in Iraq that McCain recommended and Bush
announced more than a year ago.
The two presidential candidates stood behind identical wooden
lecterns on stage at the performing arts center at the University
of Mississippi for the first of three scheduled debates with less
than six weeks remaining until Election Day. The two vice
presidential candidates will meet next week for their only debate.
The 47-year-old Obama is seeking to become the nation's first
black president. McCain, 72, is hoping to become the oldest
first-term chief executive in history - and he made a few jokes at
his own expense.
"I've been around a while," he said at one point. "Were you
afraid I couldn't hear him?" he said at another after moderator
Jim Lehrer repeated a phrase.
But he also sought to turn his age into an advantage. "There
are some advantages to experience and knowledge and judgment," he
said. "And I honestly don't believe that Sen. Obama has the
knowledge or experience" to serve as commander in chief.
McCain also made a point of declaring his independence from
Bush. "I have opposed the president on spending, on climate
change, on torture of prisoners, on Guantanamo Bay, on a long - on
the way that the Iraq War was conducted. I have a long record and
the American people know me very well ... a maverick of the
It was a debate that almost didn't happen. McCain decided a few
hours in advance to attend, two days after announcing he would try
to have the event rescheduled if Congress had not reached an
agreement on an economic bailout to deal with the crisis now
gripping Wall Street.
The two men were pointed but polite, although at least once
McCain sought to depict his rival as naive on foreign policy. That
was in response to Obama's statement that it might become necessary
to send U.S. troops across the Pakistani border to pursue
"You don't say that out loud," retorted McCain. "If you have
to do things, you do things."
He also criticized Obama for having said he would sit down
without precondition with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"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.
Obama said Henry Kissinger, the former Republican secretary of
state and a McCain adviser, shared his view on talks with Iran.
The two men also differed on federal spending. McCain said a
freeze on most government spending was worth considering, except
for veterans, defense and "some other vital issues."
Obama said the problem with that was that some programs needed
more money. He mentioned early childhood education as an example.
Moderator Jim Lehrer's opening question concerned the economic
crisis. While neither man committed to supporting bailout
legislation taking shape in Congress, they readily agreed lawmakers
must take action to prevent millions of Americans from losing their
jobs and their homes.
Both also said they were pleased that lawmakers in both parties
were negotiating on a compromise.
McCain jabbed at Obama, who he said has requested millions of
dollars in pork barrel spending, including some after he began
running for president.
As he does frequently while campaigning, the Republican vowed to
veto any lawmaker's pork barrel project that reaches his desk in
the White House. "You will know their names and I will make them
famous," he said.
The stakes were high as the two rivals walked on stage. The
polls gave Obama a modest lead and indicated he was viewed more
favorably than his rival when it came to dealing with the economy.
But the same surveys show McCain favored by far on foreign policy.
Both candidates had rehearsed extensively, Obama prepping with
advisers at a resort in Clearwater, Fla., and McCain putting in
debate work at his home outside Washington.
The two presidential hopefuls are scheduled to debate twice
more, at Belmont University in Nashville on Oct. 7 and at Hofstra
University in Hempsted, N.Y., on Oct. 15. Vice presidential
contenders Sarah Palin and Joe Biden are to square off in a single
debate Oct. 2 at Washington University in St. Louis.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)