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In McCain-Obama debate, a clash of two visions

By Staff writer / September 27, 2008

Debaters: Sen. Barack Obama (D), right, looks at Sen. John McCain as he makes a point Friday during the first US presidential debate, at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss.

Jim Bourg/AP

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Oxford, Miss. – Against the backdrop of what could be the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama presented starkly different visions of how they would lead the nation during Friday night’s high-stakes debate.

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In what was perhaps one of the most substantive encounters in recent history, the two candidates clashed on everything from tax policy to the war in Iraq to how they’d handle the growing threat from Iran.

Senator McCain repeatedly tried to paint Senator Obama as naive and untested, while Obama regularly sought to tie McCain to what he called the “failed policies” of the Bush administration.

Both countered the attacks with a sense of command and control. Obama called for a new approach to foreign and economic policies, calling the current economic crisis “the final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush and supported by John McCain.”

As he touted his credentials as a pork-barrel-cutting maverick, McCain regularly quipped “you don’t understand” to Obama. “It’s well known I have not been elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate nor with the administration,” he noted twice.

“It was one of the more competent debates we’ve seen in a long time. There were no major gaffes. It was data-driven, and both spoke clearly to their constituencies, as they should have,” says Allan Louden, a debate expert at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “I would rate it as a draw, but if it’s a draw, the draw goes to the challenger and that would be Obama.”

Several instant polls during the debate gave the overall advantage to Obama on handling the economy and Iraq. By a margin of 51 percent to 38 percent, viewers said Obama did the “best job” overall, a CNN poll found. A CBS poll of undecided voters found 40 percent said Obama won, and 22 percent gave the nod to McCain. But such immediate reactions are often short-lived, coming before each campaign begins “spinning” its view of the encounter to the public through the media.

Immediately after the debate, both campaigns sent a battery of high-profile supporters to what’s called “Spin Alley” in the Media Filing Center in Oxford to declare their candidate the clear winner.

“John McCain won this debate by a wide margin. The entire debate was fought on McCain’s ground,” says Charles Black, a top McCain campaign adviser. “The economic segments were largely on federal spending and he was talking about his record of cutting spending. Then you moved into the foreign policy segments, and on every single one of them – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia – McCain was able to show experience, knowledge, judgment, and Obama was on the defensive the whole time.”

Obama’s defenders were just as adamant that the Illinois senator won the debate.