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McCain, Obama clash over economy in a testy debate

The Democrat blames Bush and the GOP for the downturn; the Republican proposes a homeowner bailout.

October 08, 2008|Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

NASHVILLE — John McCain and Barack Obama tussled over taxes, diplomacy and personal judgment in an often testy debate Tuesday night that featured none of the raw character attacks that have lately dominated the presidential campaign.

After another day of plunging fortunes on Wall Street, the two candidates picked up where their last encounter left off. Obama blamed the nation's economic woes on the Bush administration -- aided and abetted, he suggested, by the Republican senator from Arizona.

"While it's true that nobody's completely innocent here, we have had over the last eight years the biggest increases in deficit spending and national debt in our history," Obama said. "And Sen. McCain voted for four out of five of those George Bush budgets."

McCain again sought to distance himself from the unpopular incumbent -- at one point he dismissed a "Bush-Cheney energy bill" he opposed -- and portrayed himself as a pragmatic problem-solver with a history of bucking Washington for the greater good.

"I have a clear record of bipartisanship," McCain said. ". . . Sen. Obama has never taken on his leaders of his party on a single issue."

Addressing the economic crisis, McCain offered one of his most significant proposals of the campaign, saying he would order the Treasury secretary to immediately "buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate . . . at the diminished value of those homes, and let people be able to make those . . . payments and stay in their homes."

McCain's $300-billion plan, a turnabout from an earlier position, would require a radical shift in the government's approach. It raised several questions the McCain campaign could not immediately answer, including what its potential impact would be on efforts to remedy the global credit crisis.

With less than four weeks until the election, the 90-minute session before a national television audience presented McCain one of his last best chances to turn around a contest that seems to be moving decidedly in Obama's direction. There was no obvious momentum-shifting moment, but unlike their first debate on Sept. 26, the two made little effort to hide their seemingly mutual contempt.

At one point, McCain referred to Obama as "that one," without uttering his name. At other times, the candidates were snappish and sarcastic, none more so than when they discussed U.S. policy toward Pakistan. "Remarkable," McCain said, when he accused Obama of reckless swagger for saying he would cross Pakistan's borders to capture Osama bin Laden if there was "actionable intelligence" the country failed to pursue. "I'm not going to telegraph my punches, which is what Sen. Obama did," McCain said.

The Illinois senator fired back that although McCain sought to portray him as "green behind the ears," his Republican rival was the one "who sang 'bomb, bomb, bomb Iran' [and] called for the annihilation of North Korea. That, I don't think, is an example of speaking softly."

The debate, the second of three scheduled, was fashioned like a town hall meeting, a format in which McCain often thrives. The moderator, NBC's Tom Brokaw, passed along questions submitted via the Internet and called on some of the 80 undecided voters seated on risers at Nashville's Belmont University.

There were supposed to be ground rules -- proscribing how much the candidates could walk around on stage, and forbidding direct engagement. But McCain and Obama ignored them from the start, roaming at will, running over time limits and demanding opportunities to rebut their opponent. Frequently, one could be seen grinning, mirthlessly, while the other attacked.

The contest has taken a sharply negative turn in recent days, as polls showed Obama pulling ahead of McCain in several key states. The McCain campaign cited Obama's association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his controversial ex-pastor, and William Ayers, a Chicago professor who in the 1960s co-founded the radical Weather Underground. Obama's camp, in turn, invoked McCain's involvement in the 1980s Keating Five savings and loan scandal.

None of those subjects came up Tuesday night. Instead, the candidates rooted many of their criticisms in the economic debacle threatening to bring down the world's financial system. McCain suggested much of the blame rested on Obama's shoulders.

With encouragement from the Democrat "and his cronies," McCain said, mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac lent money to homeowners who could not afford to repay it. "There were some of us that stood up against this," McCain said. "There were others who took a hike."

Obama accused McCain of vastly overstating both the role the federal institutions played in the crisis, and his own foresight in warning of the dangers. "In fact," he noted, it is McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, who partly owns a lobbying firm that earned a rich retainer from Fannie Mae.

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