By Scott Helman and Susan Milligan, Globe Staff
Speaking directly to undecided voters, Senator John McCain challenged rival Barack Obama tonight in their second debate on his reform vision for the country, asserting that Obama’s record belied his rhetoric on lowering taxes, reining in government spending, and imposing more regulation on the nation’s financial system.
Obama answered by looking forward, casting himself as the candidate with the fresh ideas to restore fairness to the economy, help the middle class survive the financial crisis, and improve America’s standing in the world.
McCain, who, over the past few weeks of the campaign, has largely cast himself as an agent of change, switched course slightly to highlight his long record in Washington, touting his bipartisan legislative efforts with Democrats such as Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, his willingness to challenge Republican Party orthodoxy, and his support for alternative energy. By contrast, he argued, Obama has little in his background to suggest he can make good on his promises.
‘‘I fought higher taxes. I have fought excess spending. I have fought to reform government,’’ McCain said. ‘‘Let’s look at our records, my friends, and then listen to my vision for the future of America.’’
But Obama, as he has done repeatedly on the campaign trail — and, judging from the polls, effectively — argued forcefully that McCain’s record was one of pushing for deregulation. And it is the climate of deregulation in Washington, Obama argued, that has let the private sector ‘‘run wild,’’ and gravely threatens the global economy.
'‘You need somebody working for you, and you’ve got to have somebody in Washington who is thinking about the middle class and not just those who can afford to hire lobbyists,’’ Obama said.
McCain, in turn, took pains to separate himself from the unpopular Bush administration. The Arizona lawmaker said he would direct the next Treasury secretary to buy up bad mortgages and renegotiate the terms so that people can hang onto their homes.
'‘It’s my proposal. It’s not Senator Obama’s proposal, and it’s not President Bush’s proposal,’’ McCain said.
The debate had its fair share of pointed barbs, but they were issue-based, and did not veer into character, despite the bitter turn the campaign has taken in recent days.
McCain sought to underscore his experience in national security, and — repeating a common theme of his campaign — accused Obama of being too green to make the proper judgments.
When and whether to use force abroad is ‘‘a question [that] can only be answered by someone with the knowledge and experience to know,’’ McCain said, describing himself as someone with ‘‘a cool hand at the tiller.’’
‘‘In his short career, he does not understand our national security challenges,’’ McCain said of Obama. ‘‘We don’t have the time for on-the-job training.’’
Obama, clearly anticipating the attack, responded firmly by attacking McCain’s support for the Iraq war.
‘‘It’s true — there are some thing I don’t understand,’’ Obama said. ‘‘I don’t understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11’’ while failing to capture Osama bin Laden.
‘‘That was Senator McCain’s judgment, and it was the wrong judgment,’’ Obama said.
But it was the economy that dominated the debate.
Seizing on public disgust with corporate executives, Obama slammed McCain for a tax plan — extending all of President Bush’s tax cuts — that the Illinois senator said would benefit those who don’t need more cash.
‘‘He wants to give the average CEO an additional $700,000 in tax cuts. That’s not fair, and it doesn’t work,’’ Obama said.
McCain retorted that Obama’s plan — to raise taxes on people making more than $250,000 a year — would damage small businesses and hinder employment.
‘‘Nailing down Senator Obama’s tax proposals is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall,’’ McCain said.
Obama, repeating that his tax plan would cut taxes for the middle class, shot back: ‘‘I think the Straight Talk Express lost a wheel on that one.’’
The setting, a town hall meeting at Belmont University in Nashville, was McCain’s turf: The town hall has long been his format of choice — he held more than 100 of them in New Hampshire en route to winning the Republican primary there in January that resurrected his presidential bid.
Tonight’s debate included questions submitted by voters over the Internet. The sheer number of questions sent in — reportedly 6 million — signifies the unprecedented involvement and interest of voters in the presidential election. Moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC News selected a handful of online questions and also chose questioners from among 80 undecided voters sharing the stage with the candidates.
The event opened a window directly into the concerns of voters — on jobs, on the massive $700 billion bailout of the financial industry, on government entitlement programs, on healthcare. Not surprisingly, the economy dominated the discussion, with the stock market providing another grim backdrop: the Dow industrial average dropped another 508 points yesterday, closing at its lowest point in five years.
The biggest question going into the debate was whether McCain and Obama would carry their increasingly personal, character-centered battle into prime time.
McCain’s campaign, facing an increasingly narrow path to the presidency, has concluded that attacking Obama over his background, character, and past associations is the best hope for halting Obama’s momentum. A slew of national and battleground state polls over the past few weeks have moved decidedly in Obama’s favor, and if the trend holds, the Illinois senator could be poised to win a wide victory on Nov. 4.
Since last weekend, McCain and his running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, have been stepping up their assaults against Obama, telling voters that they do not know enough about him to put him in the White House.
Campaigning in Jacksonville, Fla., today, Palin again went after Obama over his past relationship with William Ayers, a founder of the radical group the Weather Underground, which bombed government buildings in the 1970s. Palin questioned an Obama adviser’s contention that Obama did not know of Ayers’s violent past when Obama attended a political event at his Chicago home in the 1990s.
‘‘He didn’t know that he had launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist?’’ Palin said, promising that the debate would highlight the distinction between Obama, ‘‘a politician who observes and analyzes us,’’ and McCain, ‘‘a leader who knows and understands us.’’
Obama’s campaign has responded by highlighting McCain’s central involvement in the Keating Five savings and loan scandal from the 1980s and accusing McCain of trying to distract voters from issues such as the economy, healthcare, and the war in Iraq.
McCain and Obama are scheduled to meet for their third and final debate next Wednesday night at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.