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.
Promoting his record of bipartisan cooperation in Washington, McCain said he has "a clear record of reaching across the aisle." He mentioned several of the same Democrats twice in the first 25 minutes of the debate and cited independent Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman three times during the debate.
McCain also returned repeatedly to criticizing Obama over special-interest earmark spending, a line of attack that did not seem to help the Republican in the first debate.
In spite of the escalating character attacks by both sides in recent days, the candidates avoided personal charges. There was no mention of Obama's connections to a former 1960s radical or McCain's to a convicted financier.
Neither man came across as overly aggressive or angry, though at one point McCain referred to Obama as "that one" rather than by name. Each chose to display a somber mien during what McCain, in his closing comments, referred to as tough times.
There were no obvious gaffes. And while their remarks might have seemed fresh to undecided voters, there was little that appeared new to anyone following the campaign.
Facing questions from ordinary voters was supposed to be an advantage for McCain, who has based his presidential campaigns around such events. But Obama has held dozens of similar sessions during his presidential run, too, and the debate seemed unlikely to have shaken up the race.
With the election four weeks away, McCain needs a change soon, having fallen behind by a significant margin.
One closely watched indicator registered a new high in support for Obama yesterday. The Gallup Daily Tracking poll showed Obama leading McCain by 51 percent to 42 percent.
It was the first time the survey showed more than half of the nation's registered voters supporting Obama. No Democratic presidential candidate has won a majority of the popular vote since Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Obama's 9-percentage point edge, in polling from Saturday through Monday nights, matches his largest lead of the general election campaign and is the highest for either candidate.
Democratic poll-taker Peter Hart said in a recent analysis that the election has shifted in Obama's direction because McCain "has lost control of the economic issue, and the debate over the financial crisis has made voters doubt him."
McCain and Obama are to hold one more face-to-face meeting, a week from today, featuring questions about the economy and domestic issues.
CANDIDATES' BEST MOMENTS
Most underhanded compliment
"Senator Obama, it's good to be with you at a town hall meeting." - McCain. In June, McCain invited Obama to participate in 10 town hall meetings, a format McCain enjoys; Obama declined.
On foreign intervention, McCain said: "My hero is a guy named Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt used to say ... talk softly, but carry a big stick. Senator Obama likes to talk loudly. In fact, he said he wants to announce that he's going to attack Pakistan. Remarkable. ... When you announce that you're going to launch an attack into another country, it's pretty obvious that you have the effect that it had in Pakistan: It turns public opinion against us." Obama responded: "Now, Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears and ... I'm just spouting off, and he's somber and responsible. Senator McCain, this is the guy who sang, 'Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,' who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don't think is an example of 'speaking softly.' This is the person who, after we had - we hadn't even finished Afghanistan, where he said, 'Next up, Baghdad.' "
Most frustrated time-keeper
Tom Brokaw, who asked concise follow-up questions far better than those from the audience, but who repeatedly had to chastise McCain and Obama for talking beyond the two-minute limit for questions and one-minute limit for follow-ups before giving up and saying, "I'm just the hired help here."
McCain, talking about setting budgetary priorities: "Look, we can attack health care and energy at the same time. We're not rifle shots here. We are Americans."
Most obviously rehearsed line
"I think the 'Straight Talk Express' lost a wheel on that one," Obama, on McCain's criticism of the Democratic ticket's tax plan.
Second most obviously rehearsed line
"Nailing down Senator Obama's various tax proposals is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. There has been five or six of them and if you wait long enough, there will probably be another one." - McCain.
Baltimore Sun staff