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Live-blogging John McCain and Barack Obama's first debate: Was it a game changer?


8:06 p.m. Was this debate a game-changer?

More than likely, we won’t know that for at least a day or two. And the continuing economic cloud hanging over the country could mitigate its effect.

Obama was strong on the part of the debate that spotlighted the economy (which, because it was at the beginning, was probably the most-watched). But McCain closed strongly, becoming more assertive in the debate’s final 30 minutes and zinging Obama time and again as out of his league on foreign policy.

Obama, who in the past has frustrated fellow Democrats for not being more sharp-edged in responding to GOP attacks, may come in for more such criticism for not more directly responding to McCain’s general theme tonight. Indeed, several times he said he basically agreed with McCain’s critique on various foreign policy issues. GOP operatives can be counted on to take every opportunity to make note of that –- and to argue that if that’s the case, why settle for him instead of McCain? 

We're signing off now, but be sure to keep checking Top of the Ticket throughout the evening for more analysis of the debate.

And look for us on Oct. 7, when we blog the second presidential debate, which will be held at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

Good night, all. And thanks for reading.

7:51 p.m. That's all, folks. The candidates have walked off the stage and into the arms of their respective wives.

7:46 p.m. As they deliver their closing statements, the candidates move on from the fray of the debate and drive home their personal narratives, which have played such a big role in this election.

Obama talks about the unlikeliness of his story, and casts himself as a product of the American dream. And John McCain talks about being a veteran, and the lessons that has instilled in him.

7:40 p.m. As the debate enters its last few minutes, McCain again seeks to depict Obama as unready to serve as commander in chief.

With the conversation returning to Iraq, McCain asserts that Obama “still doesn’t quite understand or doesn’t get” what is at stake there for the United States. And, more broadly, he says, “I don’t think I need any on-the-job training.”

And then, in a surprising twist, he compares Obama to Bush, saying that the Illinois senator's shown a "certain stubbornness" that reminded him of the current administration.

7:35 p.m. As the debate has settled into the stated topic of foreign policy, it’s become clear that McCain, with each answer, is seeking to achieve a larger goal: Paint Obama as wet behind the ears.

A prime example came when McCain, as he has in the past, scoffed at Obama’s initial response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August. Saying Obama’s first statement did not adequately recognize Russia as the aggressor, McCain said: “Again, a little bit of naivete there.”

7:25 p.m. Did Obama commit a tactical error ...

... in mentioning the moment -– way back in the spring of 2007 -– when McCain jokingly sang a revised version of an old Beach Boys tune, “Barbara Ann”? McCain’s lyrics were, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran."

The moment was captured on YouTube, and Obama broached it in responding to McCain’s efforts to depict him as rash for saying he would unilaterally launch a military strike in Pakistan to take out terrorists.

Obama treated McCain’s singing interlude as indicative of how the Republican would act as president –- giving it more meaning than it deserved.

7:18 p.m. So much for pacifism. When asked about the threat of Iran, McCain gets hawkish again. He says Iran is a huge threat to Israel, and casts Obama as naive for once saying that he would meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without any preconditions. This sets off a theoretical debate about what such a meeting would look like.

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad laughs with glee at playing such a big role in a U.S. presidential debate.

7:09 p.m. Now we’re rolling with foreign policy.

Obama says America needs turn its attentions to the region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, one of his favorite talking points. When Lehrer asks McCain what he would do about Afghanistan, McCain stresses that America's priority should be winning the war in Iraq. And he says that America should be careful about its treatment of Pakistan.

McCain seems to be be casting himself as a bit of a pacifist, which is surprising. He says he would be reluctant to cut off aid to Pakistan in order to force its leaders to go after terrorists there. And he mentions that when Reagan was president, he voted against sending troops into Lebanon.

6:53 p.m. More than 30 minutes into the debate, the word “Iraq” is finally mentioned –- by Obama, mentioning the cost of the military commitment there as an area where, given his commitment to ending that as soon as possible, he could cut federal spending.

A few minutes later, the two engage on Iraq, so far repeating their basic positions. Obama stresses that it was a wrong-headed war to begin with, and that McCain was among those miscalculating how it would play out. McCain focuses on the troop surge of last year, which Obama opposed. He criticized Obama, as he routinely does on the stump, for refusing to acknowledge that “we are winning in Iraq.” 

6:46 p.m. Lehrer did his best to get these two politicians to do what most are generally loath to do -– provide specific examples of what they might cut because of the impending cost of an economic rescue plan -– and got stone-walled, especially by Obama.

McCain restated his long-held opposition to federal subsidies for ethanol (goodbye Iowa, a state carried by Bush in 2004; McCain has been trailing there in the polls anyway). Pressed, he offered the prospect of a spending freeze of all programs but those for defense and veterans, as well as the entitlements -– such as Social Security and Medicare.

Obama derided that as using a “hatchet” instead of a “scalpel” in trimming the federal budget. But he offered only the most general statement -– “a range of things … are going to have to be delayed” -– in responding to Lehrer’s question. Instead, he focused on what he won’t want to scale back on, goals such as achieving energy independence.

6:40 p.m. This dialogue is beginning to sound like a broken record. When asked what priorities they would give up to pay for the financial recovery plan, McCain continues to stress that he will cut government spending and Obama continues to stress that he will roll back tax cuts for the wealthy.

That's much the same way they answered the first question.

6:32 p.m. So much, at least out of the gate, for the debate’s stated theme: foreign policy.

And so much, despite Lehrer’s initial effort, for a sustained discussion of the details of an economic recovery plan. Instead, the debate’s first phase has devolved into talking points. McCain is hammering away at one of his favorite subjects –- ending congressional earmarks (and attacking Obama for being part of that game).

Obama is stressing that McCain would continue the Bush-backed tax cuts for the affluent that he wants to end -– while stressing that he himself would push for tax cuts for all other Americans.

6:27 p.m. It’s early, but so far Lehrer’s effort to prod the two candidates to engage in an actual dialogue is falling short. Although he keeps prodding them to engage each other, they’re avoiding basic eye contact, looking instead at Lehrer as they speak.

Also, we should point out that live-streaming is available directly on the Los Angeles Times home page.

6:19 p.m. Both candidates have done a good job of avoiding answering Lehrer’s question about the economic recovery plan directly, but they’ve taken different strategies. Obama is using this as an occasion to attack the Bush administration’s economic policies -– making sure to link McCain to the president.

McCain seems to be trying to strike a bipartisan, less-contentious tone. He seeks to come across as calming -– perhaps cognizant of recent criticisms that his response to the economic crisis has seemed erratic to many. 

6:13 p.m. It's begun. Obama and McCain have come onstage, exchanged a cordial handshake and taken their places behind lecterns.

Lehrer immediately gets down to the gritty stuff by asking the candidates what they think about the economic recovery plan.

Obama goes first. He explains his four-point plan to fix the economy and blames the current problems on George Bush.

John McCain begins differently, first mentioning Sen. Ted Kennedy's illness. He doesn't talk specifically about how to fix the economy, but he repeatedly says that there needs to be bipartisan work to fix it. Jim Lehrer ("the Disciplinarian") isn't pleased with the meandering response, so he asks the exact same question again.

5:54 p.m. Moderator Jim Lehrer (who shall hereafter be known as "the Disciplinarian") is onstage and is lecturing the audience about the rules of the debate. He tells them that when the candidates are speaking, he doesn't want to hear a single clap or hoot from the crowd.

"I need to concentrate, I don’t want to worry about anyone cheering and hollering behind me," he tells the audience. "If you have a cell phone, throw it away or turn it off!"

5:36 p.m. This has been a roller coaster week on the campaign trail, and tonight is America's chance to see the candidates under pressure. Although the focus of this evening's debate is supposed to be foreign policy, we can expect the economy to be front and center. The turmoil on Wall Street has changed the shape of the campaign, and voters are watching candidates' responses closely.

Barack Obama and John McCain have spent hours preparing for this moment, although not as much as they would have liked. McCain's surprise announcement two days ago to "suspend" his campaign to focus on solving the economic crisis disrupted Obama's pre-debate routine.

As our Peter Nicholas reports, Obama had planned three days of debate preparation at a resort hotel in Clearwater, Fla., (with an occasional rally or two in the battleground state). Top aides had flown down to Florida to help him prepare. Gregory Craig, a Washington attorney who defended Bill Clinton in the impeachment proceedings, played John McCain in mock debates.

But Obama's trip was cut short when President Bush asked him to come to Washington on Thursday for the meeting at the White House.  He also lost preparation time by holding a pair of unplanned news conferences to respond to both the economic crisis and McCain's announcement he was "suspending'' his campaign. Aides said Obama spent a total of five hours in debate preparation in Florida -- two on Tuesday; two Wednesday; and one Thursday before flying to Washington.

We reported earlier on McCain's chaotic last few days. Our Bob Drogin reports that McCain will returning to D.C. after the debate tonight, to work on the bailout legislation. He tentatively will resume campaign travel on Monday.

As for the format of tonight's debate: Moderator Jim Lehrer (of PBS) will pose nine questions to the candidates. For each question, each candidate will give a two-minute response, and then the floor will be opened up for five minutes of debate.

To watch live coverage alongside us, you can tune in to CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, the Fox News Channel, and C-SPAN.

Stay tuned! The debate begins in less than 20 minutes.

-- Don Frederick and Kate Linthicum

(Photo: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)

Comments () | Archives (128)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Baracks argument over Iraq and A-Stan troop numbers is senseless. It is not the number sit is the aggressive plan that is lacking in A-stan. Many UN troops will not actively pursue and kill Taliban and US troops that will have been pulled to other regions within the country. This is the report as I have it from a front line is soldier who has been there twice.

Where is Bob Barr?

Mc is driving me nuts! "I don't think Obama understands" What does that mean? It least Obama is talking future not history! Your record is being involved in all this mess and that is the record you are standing on! Yak Yak make a point McCain....stop passing the buck, distorting the facts, and reliving your past!

Apparently the individual who thinks that Jim is providing Senator Obama more time needs to refer a watch that is working properly. I think that Jim is doing a good job at moderating the debate thus far. Both candidates seem to be holding their own, however McCain seems a bit inaccurate when stating his "facts" about Obama's voting record. And I think he he (McCain) should seriously reconsider his "Maverick" side-kick as she is doing more harm than good to the campaign and to the representation of Republican women in general.

Can we just compare the candidates past records....

...I'm still trying to figure out where Obama stands now and his stand against Hillary. I think he took Hillary's positions after he took the democratic nomination.

Which one is going to restore the constitution?

"Good bye Iowa"? If those farmers in Iowa don't see the crazyness of making ethanol from corn and putting a few extra buck in their pockets at the expense of the rest of the tax payers in this country then they should go ahead and vote for Obama because we are all doomed.

Obama is the same age that Bill Clinton started his term. Obama has his thoughts clear and straight. I agree that Obama has more substance, McCain is all about little examples and quotes, that is how he is trying to hold his ground. But I know more about Obama's plan from Obamas answers. That makes it clear that McCain wouldn't be a change from what we have.

Well... I tried to be a good American and watch the debates, but neither one of them are saying anything.

Oh well, better luck next election.

Answer the questions clearly, stop avoiding the truth!!!!
Why aren't the other two guys allowed to debate as well. I'm sure they will answer the truthfully and honest. STOP KEEPING REAL PEOPLE WITH REAL ANSWERS FROM SPEAKING......Nader is getting my vote now....Obama/McCain.......So many smart people in the USA and fell willing to answer the call to REALLY FIX THIS COOUNTRY!!!!

Bad...Bad......dirty politics :-((

As an independent listening to the Oil Company another George Bush rhetoric is old. So is the tax argument from both. I also know we have not been attacked on American soil since 9/11 so something is working.

I do know as my son heads to Iraq and will be there during the next presidency I prefer that McCain be his commander.

Look how much Mccain is blinking. Isnt that a tell tale sign of a liar?

I agree with a line by line over hall of the government and it's man loop holes. So I think Obama speaks to restoring the constitution and making America a great nation again not just a big global bully. Making America stong at home first so that we can lead the world! McCain is interested in more of the same. Sounds like Bush to me!

McCain needs to Maverick up and tell that junior senator to show respect. Calling him John is not okay in such a forum.

This debate has painted a very interesting picture of both candidates. I don't necessarily think they are doing the best job of providing definitive explanations regarding how they would move forward as it relates to foreign affairs, healthcare, economy, etc. but a huge part of what sells the people on a candidate, is their presentation and if you base it upon that, Obama is clearly winning. He has maintained his stature and his delivery is consistent. John McCain has no charisma. I feel like I am watching a man on death's bed who is solely drawing upon his history. He is living in yesterday instead of talking about tomorrow. And he is so arrogant. He will continue much of the same and what really works against him, is the fact that Palin would take office if something happened to him which looking at him, does not appear to be far off. But he is so evasive. His presentation is horrible. He just doesn't capture me and that ridiculous smirk is awful. At the end of the day, neither no it all and have all the answers but I am confident that Obama knows well enough to know that for what he doesn't know, he will surround himself and put the appropriate folks in the right position so he can make the best decisions in the interest of our country compared to McCain who thinks he knows it all cause he's in his 80's and in the military. He can't connect and relate to the average American.

Sad state of affairs ...I think Obama has been very honest and realistic about the fact that we may not see an immediate turnaround and as solutions are being implemented, there may have to be some revisions to plans but ultimately, I feel as though he understand the average american's plight regardless how they got there and has good ideas about how we can improve and he may very well make some errors along the way but his intentions are clear.

Obama looks very presidential and is hitting McCain very hard with logic. McCain is nervous and is trying to twist Obama's words. Get real John. I do think Senator Obama understands a great deal, John. So quite your, "Senator Obama doesn't understand". You've been in Washington for over 20 years and look what a mess we're in.

Oh, wow... that comment about McCain "perfecting" our economy is so laughable. You realize that McCain, for the last 15 years, has voted for deregulation of nearly every aspect of Wall Street? You realize that McCain is one of the biggest reasons Wall Street was allowed to run rampant and do the wild, crazy, exotic stuff that has brought us to the brink of economic armageddon?

No, I'm sure you don't, because you are just blindly following a candidate with no real clue about the facts. Obama is no perfect by any stretch, but he's a heck of a lot better than McHypocrite and his joke of a VP selection. They're just a pair of liars and crooks.

McCain has sunk.

Obama is talking a good game. If it is possible to do what he says it would be a great world. Kind of like the perfect society. Reality about where the money is gonna come from is another thing TAXES maybe.

Does anyone realize that your Boss makes a lot more money than you. If you work for a company those higher taxes for that rich guy/gal you call boss might result in downsizing. Sorry its the way the real world works

This is embarrassing. Neither is being clear, articulate, or straight talking. Both are simply repeating their campaign stumps. This isn't a debate. It's "let's take turns talking past each other. "

...can we just ask Henry?

I'd like to see John to look at Barack at least once...right in the eyes!!

McCain & Obama have made me lose interest in these two controlling government parties and look for REAL GOVERNMENT CHANGE in the other parties NOT BEING ALLOWED to DEBATE THESE TWO FAST TALKERS......What.....OMG......IDK........I think I could run for President as well......can't do any worst......bring on NADER and lets fix the USA once and for all!!!!!

18million+++ votes ignored and Hillary is hiding......Like Biden....but how do you ignore all the VOTERS and not make her VP. PALIN don't want to waste words on her......but not ready to lead our country yet :-(



McCain is very good at saying he has an answer, but isn't very good at saying what that answer is. Very clear he is using a tried and true Republican method, which is say nothing but repeat one phrase over and over: "Obama does not seem to understand...."

For the first time it was great to see a candidate (McCain) mention the ridiculous amount of tax money spent on wortless people in the govt. I'm so sick of hourly/salary paid employees at the govt offices that don't give 2 cents about helping you with your problem and after wasting 30 minutes of your time, they tell you that it's not there job. What a waste of tax payer money, good air to breath and screwing up the gene pool. I hope McCain gets in and fires every single one of them. I would be willing to bet that the govt will better off. Because you know BO will only hire more worthless govt workers.

Oh he can call Obama by his first name but McCain has to have a title. He needs to sit down before he has a heartattack with his old mind set, examples and fairy tails of the good old days. I havn't seen any good days as of late! It's the future I'm worried about!

did you hear them say the time is equal? see...

I do not see nerves in Obama as much as I see them in John...but now that John has his lil' jabs to Obama, he gets his highs now and then. Lil jokes, K G B hmmph John sounds awful, is he sick? I'll take health and youth over sick and old.

I will write in Hillary Clinton for President. I have heard enough from both of them period..

I wish Obama would grow some balls. At least three times, McCain has said variations of, "I don't think Sen. Obama understands ..." and then starts lecturing. I would HAMMER him on that.

"John, for the past hour you've been telling the world you don't think I understand. You're right. I don't understand. I don't understand how you can stand here and promise victory in Iraq when you have no exit strategy whatsoever. That's no different than Pres. Bush declaring victory in a photo op four years ago. I don't understand how you can vow to resolve this financial debacle brought about by deregulation and eight years of incompetent fiscal policies when you have strongly pushed to deregulate and when you have supported Pres. Bush's unsound decisions every step of the way. I don't understand how you can criticize my credentials and brag about your transparency when you have chosen a vice-presidential candidate with absolutely no experience and then have shielded her from the public to the extent that reporters are not even allowed to speak to her. I don't understand your cloak of moral superiority when you publicly espouse policies that will get more of our young combat soldiers killed to no advantage and approve attack ads that contain more far more lies than truths, Most of all, John, I don't understand how graduating at the bottom of your class in military college and spending five years in a hole makes you an expert on tactics and strategy.

"But I do understand this: If you are president, nothing will change for the better. And as God is my witness, if you do win, no one will be praying harder for you to thrive and survive than me, because I'm terrified of what will happen if Sarah Palin claims the White House."

Obama uses his VP when speaking of Foreign Policy to showcase it up against Johns VP and her Foreign Policy with Russia *wink Wink*

NADER or PAUL will get us back to the BASICS and start making things work again for ALL in this country. ENOUGH SAID.....NADER get with PAUL and make our country great again!!

I'll vote for who makes me feel like we have a bright future, not just spending our dimes to save the sharks of our waters McCain/Obama need to sit in our seats and realize we are failing as a country. We don't need to or have done very well leading the USA or the world. STOP the world matters and WORRY about GO OL' USA and we all will be fine!!!

I GOT A "BAILOUT" or "RESCUE PLAN" they can all chew on, kiss, or whatever it takes to makes things right without our DIMES doing the job!!!

Omaha, NE wants Nader or Paul to be heard!!!

If this debate is any indication of the future debates, I think I might just skip them and vote for McCain in November. Before this, I was undecided, but it seems to me that McCain's answers are a little more to the point and prepared; Obama seems nervous, out of his element and very much unprepared. I had higher hopes for him; maybe he should prepare a little better. And maybe both sides can dedicate a little more time to actually answering the issues/questions posed instead of taking the time to just restate the things they've been saying all along. Has either one got any new insights? Anhything that might make me think that they're really concerned with me (and, by extension, the majority of Americans) instead of just getting elected? Sigh...same old from both of them.

I think McCain is like an old man that used to play football years ago, and keeps bringing it up. I respect him for his years of military service. But that does not entitle him to be the President of the United States of America. He needs to talk more about the issues here and now. Not the I've been there and done that..

Obama = Change

Btw, how was McCain's singing "Bomb bomb bomb Iran" funny? In what way was it funny? It's sickening but intimately revealing...

John say it with me: Vet er ans not vetrans ;)

Barack >>>>>>>>>>>Bush = McCain... All McCain did during the entire debate was get emotional, while Barack stayed cool, calm, and collected. And if somehow Palin ever becomes president, I'm moving to Europe!

I've been trying to stay pretty open to both candidates' points, beliefs, and directions - and trying to learn more about them so far. After finally watching a face to face meeting between the two I see a huge difference in both their character and their experience.

Sometimes it takes a personal meeting with "grown-up" topics to see deeper inside people's character. It now seems very obvious to me who of the two has the better abilities to think, communicate, and very importantly, to represent "me" to the world.

Disaster can be technically categorized as "Change".

"Different" is one thing, but dangerous is another.

Thanks for reading,
No more neutral

McCain came across very presidential. He is the one I want leading my country!

Mccain has always voted against veterans and for lobbyists see his record here

May 2006: McCain voted against an amendment that would provide $20 million to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for health care facilities.

April 2006: McCain was one of only 13 Senators to vote against $430,000,000 for the Department of Veteran Affairs for Medical Services for outpatient care and treatment for veterans.

March 2006: McCain voted against increasing Veterans medical services funding by $1.5 billion in FY 2007 to be paid for by closing corporate tax loopholes.

March 2004: McCain once again voted for abusive tax loopholes over veterans when he voted against creating a reserve fund to allow for an increase in Veterans' medical care by $1.8 billion by eliminating abusive tax loopholes. Jeez, McCain really loves those tax loopholes for corporations, since he voted for them over our veterans' needs.

Obama's inexperienced showed tonight. I am glad he was just debating McCain instead of talking with Putin or Hugo Chavez, it could have been very harmful to U.S.!

I think we saw what we expected: Obama was better, but not as much as anticipated, on economy. McCain was better, as expected, on foreign policy but Obama was better prepared.

What I remember the most is the rudeness and defensiveness of Obama. During the democratic debates, especially with Hillary, he interrupted or would say 'not true' or whatever to Hillary. He did it a lot when she went after him or if he felt he had to say something when it wasn't his time to talk.

He did the same to McCain. But while Hillary was too polite and the moderators did not scold Obama, McCain wouldn't let him after the first couple of interruptions. I think he's going to have problems with world leaders and Congress (he's been running for Prez 2/3 of his senate time).

The debate reinforced the fact that Obama is very inexperienced and has a shady past in his associations. How do you misinterpret Rev. Wrights, sermon quote
"God D__m America," or " US of KKK" those are the direct quotes from out of Obama's mentors mouth. I guess Obama's " change" means a change to a Black America! that will go over well!

McCain: No eye contact. Rehearsed. Lots of history lessons. At a few times, he looked like he was going to blow his lid. Some good Pakistan points, however, one melanoma carcinoma away from......

Obama: Clear, strong, forward thinking, educated.

Tonight I decided Obama.

I find it rather disconcerting that McInsane errr, McCain did not or would not make eye contact once with Obama, even when prodded on several occasions by Jim Lehrer. Does he think this is a radio broadcast?

I'm not susprise John is winning on foreign policy - his experience counts. Obama needs to catch up on foreign policy

John is more experienced on foreign policy

Did any of you notice how many time Obama interrupted McCann? Obama was nervous and for good reason. He showed his very, very inexperience in foreign policy. His manner at the debate also showed his arrogance. He interrupted in such bad fashion......we don't need a president and commander in chief who thinks he knows it all and won't listen to someone else speaking.

On the other hand, McCann looked and spoke like a statesman and his answers were intelligent. He has vast experience in foreign policy and in ripping out the waste in Congress. He's done it his entire Senate career.

Obama was strong on security and foreign relations holding toe-to-toe with the cranky patronizing old McCain with all his "you don't understands" and old stories. Obama set forth fairly detailed points on the economy, whereas McCain has no plan whatsoever and seemed to wan to avoid his interference in the bailout talks and couldn't refute that his policies are just more of the same from the fiscally reckless GOP who have spent on historic proportions under Bush. America can't afford McCain-Palin.

McCain was rude and Jim Lehrer was ineffective. Obama had to interrupt occasionally because McCain went on, and on, and on -- a wall of sound with no end. In fact, when Lehrer did try to cut him off, McCain ignored him.

McCain couldn't look Obama in the eye. How will he be able to deal with Congress, with Africa, with African-Americans in our own country?

John mccain was rude that he cant even look at Obama! BEcause liars cant look at someone in their eyes

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About the Columnist
A veteran foreign and national correspondent, Andrew Malcolm has served on the L.A. Times Editorial Board and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2004. He is the author of 10 nonfiction books and father of four. Read more.
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