Few hits, no errors

Times Staff Writer

John McCain faced a tough challenge Friday in his first debate with Barack Obama: Could the Republican candidate bounce back from a wayward week embroiled in the nation’s financial crisis and regain solid footing for his presidential campaign?

Obama, his Democratic opponent, faced a challenge, too: Could a first-term senator go up against a 26-year veteran of Congress, an acknowledged expert on national security issues, and hold his own as a potential commander in chief?

In a 98-minute bout that seemed to grow more heated by the minute, Arizona Sen. McCain pummeled his Illinois counterpart with one repeated charge: The Democrat, he said, was “naive,” even “dangerous,” unqualified to lead the nation in time of war.


“Sen. Obama doesn’t seem to understand,” McCain said in several variations, with a sad half-smile that seemed to mix condescension and distaste.

“I honestly don’t believe that Sen. Obama has the knowledge or experience” to make a good president, McCain said.

But Obama parried most of McCain’s punches, ignored others, and took every opportunity to repeat the main foreign policy themes of his campaign: The war in Iraq was a mistake, he argued, a failure of “judgment” -- a word he used five times -- on the part of both McCain and President Bush, an error that meant the nation took “our eye off the ball” in the war against terrorism.

“John,” Obama said, “when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong.

“If the question is who is best equipped as the next president to make good decisions about how we use our military . . . then we can take a look at our judgment,” Obama said.

It was no surprise that McCain emphasized his experience and knowledge on national security; that has been a central rationale for his campaign from the start. Nor was it a surprise that Obama countered by repeating the word “judgment” and by seeking to link McCain to Bush, whose popularity remains at a low point.

If McCain needed to land a knockout blow in this debate, it was not clear that he did. Obama’s campaign deliberately sought to make foreign policy the focus of the first debate, in hopes that their candidate would benefit merely by surviving a challenge on the ground where the Republican was favored.

There were no major gaffes, no moments when either candidate confused one country for another. McCain stumbled over the last name of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, and Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, but he also reeled off a list of war zones he has visited, from Afghanistan to Waziristan.

Obama, too, managed to make his points -- and could take satisfaction in battling to what was arguably a tie.

For voters who have followed the 19 months of the presidential campaign, the arguments would have been wholly familiar. Neither candidate was breaking new ground.

But the exchanges were meant to draw sharp contrasts in their first meeting of general election. Their arguments focused not so much on positions or policies as on the intangibles before voters in November -- their respective fitness for office, their experience, judgment, wisdom and temperament.

Friday’s debate was originally planned to focus solely on foreign policy. But moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS chose to devote the first 40 minutes to the financial crisis, the overriding concern of most voters.

The result was, in effect, two debates. For the initial 40 minutes, the two candidates talked about the economy, largely recited their campaigns’ familiar talking points, and landed a few modest punches.

Obama, on familiar ground, went on the offensive first, charging that McCain’s proposal for a tax cut would favor the wealthy and neglect the middle class. McCain responded by charging, in a line that sounded well-prepared: “Sen. Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate; it’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left.”

But when Lehrer turned the questions toward national security, McCain’s home ground, the Republican went on the offensive. He argued vigorously that he had always been right about Iraq and Obama had always been wrong.

“We are winning in Iraq, and we will come home with victory and with honor,” McCain said, noting that he fought for the “surge” in U.S. troops that helped improve security in the country. “Sen. Obama said the surge could not work, said it would increase sectarian violence, said it was doomed to failure.”

Obama replied: “This is an area where Sen. McCain and I have a fundamental difference, because I think the first question is whether we should have gone into the war in the first place.”

Obama noted that he opposed the war in 2002, before it began. “Now, Sen. McCain and President Bush had a very different judgment,” he said. “And I wish I had been wrong, for the sake of the country, and they had been right. But that’s not the case.”

Later, more pointedly, he added: “John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007.”

It was an old issue -- but, in a sense, the right focus, for the war was the defining feature of both Obama’s campaign and McCain’s when the presidential contest began in early 2007. Obama rode a wave of antiwar sentiment to the Democratic nomination; McCain, who had long argued for more troops in Iraq, not fewer, clung doggedly to his unpopular view -- and has finally seen it turn popular again in recent months as security in Baghdad has improved.

In a Times/Bloomberg Poll conducted last weekend, voters expressed confidence in McCain’s leadership on Iraq over Obama’s by a significant margin, 50% to 34%. Asked whether they agreed with McCain that U.S. troops should stay in Iraq until the nation is secure or with Obama that troops should be withdrawn over 16 months, voters split evenly down the middle.