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

September 26, 2008 |  5:40 pm

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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)

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