x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

No clear winner emerges

John McCain and Barack Obama met at their first presidential debate for an exchange that broke little new ground.

The Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama, left, and Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain, right, take part in the first presidential debate at the University of Mississippi.
The Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama, left, and Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain, right, take part in the first presidential debate at the University of Mississippi.

OXFORD, Mississippi // John McCain and Barack Obama met at their first presidential debate on Friday for an exchange that broke little new ground and produced no significant stumbles but laid out sharp contrasts between the two men in substance and style. Both candidates employed lines and tactics that have become familiar on the campaign trail. Mr McCain suggested Mr Obama was too inexperienced and lacked the judgement to serve as US president, repeatedly remarking in a tone that at times bordered on lecturing that the Illinois senator "didn't seem to understand".

Mr Obama, meanwhile, tried to link his Republican rival to the unpopular president, George W Bush, and what he called the failed policies of the past eight years. The 90-minute debate at the University of Mississippi, for which both men seemed well-prepared, was supposed to have been devoted entirely to foreign policy. And the candidates answered questions on everything from the future of Iraq to the threat of Iran to how to deal with a resurgent Russia.

But a good deal of the debate was spent discussing aspects of the financial crisis that has gripped the country - and which nearly derailed the debate - and where the candidates stood on the proposed federal bailout package under negotiation in Washington the last few days. The moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, asked what spending priorities each candidate would be forced to give up as a result of whatever plan is ultimately passed by the US Congress and signed into law by the president.

In an attempt to distance himself from his own party, Mr McCain highlighted the need to cut federal spending, which he called "completely out of control", and said he would consider a freeze on everything but essential spending like defence and entitlement programmes. Mr Obama said a "range of programmes" would have to be delayed, but he did not specify which ones. There seemed to be no clear winner in the debate, though each side spun its candidate's performance to its own advantage, as is the custom. Mr McCain was at times aggressive and spoke with more emotion, appearing most comfortable, as expected, when talking about foreign affairs, his area of expertise. Aside from a few sharp remarks, Mr Obama came across as cool and remained poised, answering questions more directly than he sometimes does. Neither candidate stumbled badly, though Mr McCain referred incorrectly to the new president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, as "Kadari" and stumbled over the name of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president. On the matter of Iraq, the candidates sparred over the troop surge, with Mr McCain accusing Mr Obama of refusing to acknowledge its success in reducing violence. "Senator Obama said the 'surge' could not work; said it would increase sectarian violence; said it was doomed to failure," Mr McCain said. "But yet, after conceding that, he still says that he would oppose the surge if he had to decide that again today." But Mr Obama stressed that the surge was necessary only because of the administration's mishandling of the war. "You like to pretend like the war started in 2007, you talk about the surge," said Mr Obama, who opposed the war from the start. "The war started in 2003." Mr Obama called the Iraq war a distraction from the real terror threats, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "We took our eyes off the ball," he said. But Mr McCain asserted, as he has before, that Iraq is the front line in the war against al Qa'eda, and more than once linked success there with success in Afghanistan. He said the same surge strategy used in Iraq should be applied to the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan. One substantive difference on foreign policy came through when the candidates discussed their broad philosophies on diplomacy. Mr McCain criticised Mr Obama for saying earlier in the campaign that he would sit down with leaders hostile to the United States, such as Mr Ahmadinejad, "without preconditions". "This is dangerous," Mr McCain said. "It isn't just naive, it's dangerous." Mr Obama, while since backtracking on his original remarks, stood by an approach that is much more inclusive.

"This notion that by not talking to people we are punishing them has not worked," he said, adding that he supports a "robust, direct diplomacy" with Iran. Mr McCain warned a nuclear-armed Iran would be an "existential threat" to Israel that could create a "second Holocaust", and said the United States and its allies could impose "significant, meaningful, painful sanctions on the Iranians that could have a beneficial effect". "The Iranians have a lousy government, therefore their economy is lousy, even though they have significant oil revenues," he said.

Mr Obama said he agreed on the scale of the Iranian threat, but said that, more than anything, Iran had been strengthened by the Iraq war. The candidates will meet again next in Nashville, Tennessee, on Oct 7, at a town hall-style debate, where the candidates will interact directly with voters. The third and final debate will be held on Long Island on Oct 15. eniedowski@thenational.ae