Gloves stay on

Candidates maintain somber mien, stress concern for problems of voters in town hall-style confrontation

Election 2008

October 08, 2008|By Paul West | Paul West,

John McCain, trailing in the polls, portrayed Barack Obama last night as a tax-and-spend liberal who lacks the courage to challenge leaders of his own party and would need on-the-job training as president.

In their second televised debate, the candidates stuck closely to substance in a low-key encounter that opened with questions from ordinary voters about the economic crisis gripping the country. Hours before the event began, U.S. financial markets dropped sharply for a fifth straight day. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 5 percent and has now plunged by one-third since last October.

Obama went after McCain, as he has throughout the campaign, by attempting to tie him to the unpopular presidency of George W. Bush.

The Democrat called the financial crisis "a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years ... strongly promoted by President Bush and supported by Senator McCain." And he demanded the firing of executives of the AIG insurance company for going on "a $400,000 junket" shortly after the federal government bailed out their firm.

McCain, seeking to put distance between himself and the administration, said that, as president, he would order his Treasury secretary to buy up mortgages from homeowners facing foreclosure and have the loans renegotiated at the lower value of the property. The senator acknowledged that his plan would be expensive, but, he added, "It's my proposal. It's not Senator Obama's proposal. It's not President Bush's proposal."

The plan, which could cost hundreds of billions, was the only major new idea floated by either man. Obama did not respond during the debate but his campaign, in an e-mail to reporters, quoted the Democrat as having said government should considering buying troubled mortgages.

McCain jabbed at Obama's readiness to assume the presidency and over issues such as health care, taxes, earmark spending and nuclear power, stopping occasionally to apologize to the voters seated onstage at Belmont University.

"I know you grow a little weary of this back and forth," McCain said.

Obama, in a similar vein, told the voters that "you're not interested in finger-pointing," then went on to blame McCain and the financial deregulation of the past eight years for the turmoil in credit markets now stoking fears of a worldwide recession.

The questions were posed, in person and online, by undecided voters, a group notoriously hostile to mudslinging. Eighty voters, chosen by the Gallup Organization from citizens in the Nashville area, sat in a semicircle around the candidates. NBC's Tom Brokaw served as moderator.

In response to one of Brokaw's question, McCain said health care was a responsibility "available and affordable ... to every American citizen." Obama said "it should be a right" and mentioned his mother's death from cancer at age 53, as he has frequently in the campaign.

From the outset, the candidates tried to balance their attacks on each other by assuring voters that they cared more about their problems than scoring points.

"Look, I understand your frustration and your cynicism," Obama told a woman who asked why she should trust either candidate with her money.

McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, had urged him to "take the gloves off." But most of the charges were delivered in a soft tone, and in virtually the same terms that McCain used in their first debate.

The generational contrast in the election could be glimpsed when McCain, walking stiffly across the stage, quoted a line from "my hero," Teddy Roosevelt, about talking softly and carrying a big stick. Then, in a jab at his rival, he said that "Senator Obama likes to talk loudly.' "

McCain's reference was to Obama's threat, months ago, to pursue al-Qaida into Pakistan if that country's government was unwilling to act.

"I agree that we have to speak responsibly," replied Obama. "Nobody called for the invasion of Pakistan. Senator McCain continues to repeat this."

Obama went on to accuse McCain of saying that "somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears, and, you know, I'm just spouting off, and he's somber and responsible."

"Thank you very much," interjected McCain.

Obama went on to add that McCain "sang 'Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran' and called for the annihilation of North Korea," adding that's "not an example of speaking softly."

McCain replied that the song was a joke and that "I understand what it's like to send young Americans into harm's way," an implicit contrast with Obama, who has no military experience.

The exchange over foreign policy was perhaps the sharpest of the evening, but it retraced ground covered in their first debate. It added to the repetitive quality of the event and displayed McCain's tendency to make the same points more than once.

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