October 8, 2008

A Handshake, Then Punches Round 2 | Presidential Debates


By Charles Babington

The Associated Press


Barack Obama and John McCain clashed repeatedly over the causes and cures for the worst economic crisis in 80 years Tuesday night in a debate in which McCain called for a sweeping $300 billion program to shield home-owners from mortgage foreclosure.

"It's my proposal. It's not Sen. Obama's proposal," McCain said at the outset of a debate he hoped could revive his fortunes in a presidential race trending toward his rival.

In one pointed confrontation on foreign policy, Obama bluntly challenged McCain's steadiness. "This is a guy who sang 'bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,' who called for the annihilation of North Korea - that I don't think is an example of speaking softly."

He spoke after McCain accused him of foolishly threatening to invade Pakistan and said, "I'm not going to telegraph my punches, which is what Sen. Obama did."

The debate was the second of three between the two major-party nominees, and the only one to feature a format in which prospective voters seated a few feet away posed questions to the candidates.

"It's good to be with you at a town hall meeting," McCain jabbed at his rival, who has spurned the Arizona Republican's calls for numerous such joint appearances across the fall campaign.

They debated on a stage at Belmont University four weeks before Election Day in a race that has lately favored Obama, both in national polls and in surveys in pivotal battleground states.

As expected, many of the questions dealt with an economy in trouble.

Obama said the current crisis is the "final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years" that President Bush pursued and were "supported by Sen. McCain."

He contended that Bush, McCain and others had favored deregulation of the financial industry, predicting that would "let markets run wild and prosperity would rain down on all of us. It didn't happen."

McCain's pledge to have the government help individual home- owners avoid foreclosure went considerably beyond the $700 billion bailout that recently cleared Congress.

"I would order the secretary of the Treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes - at the diminished value of those homes - and let people be able to make those payments and stay in their homes," he said.

"Is it expensive? Yes. But we all know, my friends, until we stabilize home values in America, we're never going to start turning around and creating jobs and fixing our economy, and we've got to get some trust and confidence back to America."

McCain also said it was important to reform the giant benefit programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

"My friends, we are not going to be able to provide the same benefit for present-day workers that present-day retirees have today," he said, although he did not elaborate.

The two men also competed to demonstrate their qualifications as reformers at a time when prospective voters are clamoring for change.

McCain accused the Illinois Democrat of being the Senate's second- highest recipient of donations from individuals at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two now-disgraced mortgage industry giants.

"There were some of us who stood up against this," McCain said of the lead-up to the financial crisis. "There were others who took a hike."

Obama shot back that McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, has a stake in a Washington lobbying firm that received thousands of dollars a month from Freddie Mac until recently.

Pivoting quickly to show his concern with members of the audience listening from a few feet away, Obama said, "You're not interested in politicians pointing fingers. You're interested in the impact on you."

But that didn't stop the two men from criticizing each other repeatedly as the topics turned to energy, spending, taxes and health care.

Obama said McCain was going to require taxes on the health benefits workers receive from their employers at the same time his plan would wipe out the ability of states to enforce their own regulations to require tests such as mammograms.

McCain countered that under his rival's plan, "Sen. Obama will fine you" if parents fail to obtain coverage for their children but had yet to say what the fine would be. "Perhaps we will find that out tonight," he said.

Obama quickly followed up, saying that McCain "voted against the expansion" of the children's health care program the government runs.

The two men prefer dramatically different approaches to easing the problem of millions of uninsured Americans. McCain favors a $5,000 tax credit that he says would allow families to find and afford health care on their own.

Obama wants to build on the current system, in which millions receive coverage through the workplace, with government funding to help uninsured families obtain coverage.

The debate also veered into foreign policy, and the disputes were as intense as on the economy and domestic matters.

McCain said his rival "was wrong about Iraq and the surge. He was wrong about Russia when they committed aggression against Georgia. And in his short career he does not understand our national security challenges. We don't have time for on-the-job training."

Obama countered with a trace of sarcasm that he didn't understand some things - like how the United States could face the challenge it does in Afghanistan after spending years and hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq.

The audience was selected by Gallup, the polling organization, and was split three ways among potential voters leaning toward McCain, those leaning toward Obama and those undecided.

Tom Brokaw of NBC, the moderator, screened their questions and also chose others that had been submitted online.

"I have a plan to fix this problem, and it has got to do with energy independence. We've got to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don't ... like us very much.""I believe this is a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by President Bush and supported by Sen. McCain." economy McCain said Obama "was wrong about Iraq and the surge" and wrong about Russian aggression. McCain said Obama doesn't understand national security challenges. Obama said he would prioritize the hunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. He said McCain wrongly supported the invasion of Iraq, which diverted U.S. security interests. security McCain said Obama's health plan would hurt businesses and fine families "if parents fail to obtain coverage for their children." He then said Obama failed to say what the fine is. Obama said McCain would require taxes on the health benefits that workers receive from their employers and criticized McCain's voting record on providing health care. taxes/health John McCain >>>

Strengths: A new Ipsos/McClatchy poll says more people trust McCain on foreign policy and security. Barack Obama >>>

Strengths: The same poll found more people trust Obama to fix the economy and back family values. online Join an online panel discussion about Tuesday's debate at PilotOnline.com. inside Separate some of the rhetoric from the facts.

Front section, Page 13 still ahead The final debate is set for Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in New York.

Originally published by BY CHARLES BABINGTON.

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