By Scott Helman and Susan Milligan, Globe Staff
Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, meeting on a debate stage for the first time last night, clashed over the root causes of the crisis gripping the nation's financial system, with McCain blaming greed and incompetent government oversight and Obama trying to pin the meltdown on a laissez-faire approach to the private sector that McCain has long championed.
Facing each other from wooden podiums on a stark stage at the University of Mississippi, McCain and Obama sought to demonstrate economic leadership to a country that badly wants it with the markets shaky, financial giants going under nearly every day, and Washington haggling over an emergency $700 billion bailout plan to stave off a deep recession.
In their 90-minute, free-wheeling encounter, they also engaged sharply over who had shown the best judgment on the Iraq war and when it was appropriate to meet with leaders of rogue nations. McCain sought to tag Obama as naive on foreign affairs, but Obama gave as good as he got, accusing McCain of focusing myopically on Iraq and losing sight of the real culprit in the war on terror -- Al Qaeda.
Though the debate was supposed to focus mainly on foreign policy, Obama and McCain spent more than a half hour at the outset exchanging criticism of each other’s records and economic plans for the country.
Obama said the current crisis was "the final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies," linking McCain with what he said was a Republican philosophy that the "market can always solve everything and that the less regulation we have the better off we're going to be."
"We're also going to have to look at, how is it that we shredded so many regulations?" Obama said, though the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, signed some of the deregulation measures.
McCain, seeking to avoid that stain, blamed government regulators, whom he said were asleep at the switch, and he again expressed a populist fury at Wall Street executives.
"Somehow in Washington today, and I'm afraid on Wall Street, greed is rewarded, excess is rewarded, and corruption — or the failure to carry out our responsibilities — is rewarded," he said.
Given the cost of the bailout, McCain floated the idea of freezing government spending except on defense, veterans, and a few other "vital" programs he did not specify.
Obama opposed a general spending freeze, saying that some programs, such early childhood education, are worthy investments. "The problem with a spending freeze is you're using a hatchet where you need a scalpel," Obama said.
McCain went after Obama for requesting hundreds of millions of dollars in congressional earmarks, a practice McCain has long fought against. "That kind of thing is not the way to rein in runaway spending in Washington, D.C.," McCain said.
But Obama said it was ‘‘hard to swallow’’ McCain’s complaints about spending when the GOP had been in power the last eight years and had grown the national debt by several trillion dollars.
"John, it’s been your president -- who you said you agree with 90 percent of the time -- who presided over this increase in spending, this orgy of spending, and enormous deficits,’’ the Democrat said.
The highly anticipated debate, their first head-to-head clash of the general election, was nearly eclipsed by the wrangling over the Bush administration’s controversial bailout bill, which has transfixed Washington. Until late yesterday morning, it was unclear whether the debate would even happen.
McCain announced Wednesday afternoon that he would suspend his campaign and devote himself to the bailout negotiations, and that he wanted the debate postponed "until we have taken action to address this crisis." But Obama rejected his offer to put the debate off, and McCain said yesterday that he would fly to Mississippi in light of what his campaign called "significant progress toward a bipartisan agreement."
Last night’s debate — 48 years to the day when John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon squared off in the first-ever televised debate — was the first of three between Obama and McCain scheduled over the next three weeks. They are set to meet for a town hall-style forum at Belmont University in Nashville on Oct. 7, and for a debate on domestic issues at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 15. The vice presidential candidates, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware and Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, are slated to debate just once, on Thursday at Washington University in St. Louis.
The latter two-thirds of last night's debate focused on foreign policy.
On Iraq, Obama offered a harsh critique of McCain’s original championing of the war, which Obama opposed from the start. "When the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy," he said. "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. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni, and you were wrong."
By focusing nearly all its energy on the war in Iraq, Obama said, the United States had left itself less safe.
"In the meantime, [Osama] bin Laden is still out there," Obama said. "He is not captured. He is not killed. Al Qaeda is resurgent."
McCain said the next president wouldn’t have to deal with the genesis of the war, but instead ‘‘how we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind.’’
He also accused Obama of refusing to acknowledge the success of the surge of 30,000 additional troops last year, even likening what he called Obama's "stubbornness" to President Bush.
"We need more flexibility in a president of the United States than that," McCain said. Obama laughed incredulously.
The candidates exchanged sharp jabs over Obama's expressed willingness to meet with rogue leaders without preconditions. Obama stood by his position, saying that by refusing to meet with the leaders of Iran and North Korea, the Bush administration had only encouraged them further down the path of nuclear proliferation.
McCain attacked Obama using the example of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,cq who has called Israel a "stinking corpse."
"You legitimize those comments," McCain said. "This is dangerous. It isn't just naive. It's dangerous."
Polls have consistently shown that voters trust McCain, 72, more to handle issues of national security. He said at another point, "I honestly don't believe that Senator Obama has the knowledge or experience" to serve as commander-in-chief.
McCain cited as an example Obama's position that the US should strike terrorist leaders in Pakistan unilaterally if Pakistan were unable or unwilling to do so. "You don't do that," McCain said. "You don't say it out loud."
But Obama turned the critique back on McCain by taking a shot at his temperament, saying, "Coming from you, who have in the past threatened extinction for North Korea and sung songs about bombing Iran, I don't know how credible that is."
Obama, 47, argued that, despite his mere 3 1/2 years in Washington, he has shown the right judgment to be commander-in-chief.
Seeking to connect emotionally with viewers in what may turn out to be the most-watched presidential debate in history, both candidates showed off memorial bracelets given to them by family members of fallen servicemen. But the two bracelets neatly represent their different positions on the war in Iraq.
McCain, who wears a bracelet given him by the mother of Matthew Stanley, a 22-year-old from Wolfeboro, N.H., killed near Baghdad in December 2006, recalled that she told him this: "Promise me one thing, that you'll do everything in your power to make sure that my son's death was not in vain.''
Obama said he had a bracelet of his own, given to him by a distraught mother in Green Bay, Wisc. She had a different message.
"She asked me, can you please make sure another mother is not going through what I'm going through?''
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.