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Live blogging Barack Obama and John McCain's presidential debate: The nominees come out swinging

October 7, 2008 |  5:42 pm

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(UPDATE: A copy of the complete debate transcript is available here.)

Parting thoughts: So Bill Ayers, despite all the huffing and puffing about him going into the debate, was a no-show in the debate rhetoric -- and for that, voters who wanted the nominees to focus on the future probably were thankful.

But those voters also might have been disappointed by what, to us, was the lack of a clear, clarion call from either Barack Obama or John McCain on how the country -- under a new administration -- will confront what appear to be unprecedented economic challenges.

McCain provided one surprise by using the forum to unveil what he called a new plan to have the Treasury Department come to the aid of homeowners struggling to renegotiate their mortgages. But it was unclear how that expands on -- if at all -- the role the agency will play under the sweeping financial rescue plan signed into law last week. (The Obama camp, in a post-debate e-mail, insists it does not.) Nor did McCain elaborate on or spotlight his proposal after laying it on the table.

Too often, the men yammered over their Senate voting records -- symptomatic, as we noted below, of a congressional mentality that doesn't translate well in a presidential debate.

More vision -- something Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan would have spun out effortlessly -- would have better served Obama's and McCain's purposes.

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7:30 p.m. What Brokaw terms a question with a “certain Zen-like quality” to it ends the proceedings. The nominees are asked, “What don’t you know and how will you learn it?”

Presented with that variation of the perennial job interview query most of us dread –- What are your shortcomings? –- Obama pretty much punted....

...while McCain gave it a shot before moving on.

The Democrat used the question to remind voters that he –- like most of them -– came from “modest means.” He then drove home the basic rationale for his candidacy –- a call for “fundamental change” from the eight years of the Bush administration.

McCain acknowledged that he, like all of us, doesn’t know what the future holds –- “what’s going to happen. Both here and abroad.”

He then used that to segue to the basic rationale for his candidacy -– that he offers the experience, the “steady hand” to shepherd the nation through unanticipated challenges.

7:25 p.m. As the discussion turns to Russia’s recent assertiveness in central Europe, Obama gives an answer that might have attracted little interest a month ago but may have sounded a wrong note now.

McCain said that America has to “show moral support” for Georgia, Ukraine and other nations feeling threatened by Russia. Obama said more than that is needed –- he calls for “financial assistance” from the U.S. to help such countries build their economies.

Given the state of America’s finances, public support for increasing the foreign-aid budget probably is not high.

7:19 p.m. The senators, with Brokaw’s assent, throw the debate guidelines by the board and engage directly and aggressively on U.S. policy toward Pakistan.

It begins with McCain asserting that Obama was foolish to threaten to “invade” Pakistan to fight terrorists.

Obama, in turn, charges McCain with misrepresenting his position. “Nobody called for the invasion of Pakistan,” Obama says. Obama repeats the policy that he first laid out in a speech more than a year ago, when he was one of many candidates in a crowded Democratic primary field, that if Pakistan is “unable or unwilling” to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his terrorist allies, he would do so.

McCain repeats his assertion that Obama displayed his inexperience by threatening to “invade” Pakistan.

Obama takes this as an opportunity to bring up one of McCain's worst gaffes: the comment in which McCain joked that America should "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran."

7:14 p.m. We now bring you an update from our mole who is watching the debate over at NBC studios in Burbank, where Jay Leno just finished taping "The Tonight Show."

Our spy reports that Leno will deliver this line about the debate on his show: "It's a town-hall format, which is John McCain's favorite way to speak to crowds. As opposed to Barack Obama's favorite way, a sermon on a mount."

7:08 p.m. As the debate hits its hour mark, the subject turns to what would have dominated the discussion a year ago –- foreign affairs.

MccaindebateMcCain repeats what was his mantra in the first debate –- Obama “does not understand” the nation’s national security responsibilities.

Obama, who some thought too often allowed that assertion to go unchallenged in the first debate, focuses on Iraq and seeks to turn the charge on its head.

Recalling his opposition –- as an Illinois state senator –- to the congressional resolution authorizing force in Iraq, he says yes, he does not “understand how we invaded a country that had nothing to do with” the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"And it’s been costly to us," he adds, focusing on the “enormous strain” the war has put on the federal budget –- a point that may carry more force against the backdrop of the economic turmoil.

6:59 p.m. The debate is approaching its hour mark and, as yet, one notable name has yet to be uttered –- Bill Ayers, the Vietnam-era radical who ultimately became a college professor and played a role in the start of Obama’s political career. He has dominated much of the campaign dialogue since the weekend, and some McCain supporters were hoping that he would broach Obama’s link to Ayers as a way to question the Democrat’s judgment.

Nor, for that matter, has Iraq or Afghanistan figured in the debate.

Instead, the debate has centered on domestic issues.

On a deceptively simple question –- Is health care a privilege, a right or a responsibility? –- a key difference between the men emerges, completely in line with their differing political philosophies.

McCain terms it a responsibility, Obama a right.

This divergence almost assuredly will get vigorously dissected in the days to come.

6:57 p.m. In answer after answer, the men can’t resist arguing over their prospective records and how they voted on this bill or that bill, despite the general perception that both the questioners in the hall and the audience in general would prefer forward-looking responses.

This may, in part, be one of the wages of having senators squaring off –- they simply can’t resist lapsing into the tried-and-true debating habits of legislators.

6:53 p.m. Asked how swiftly his administration would address environmental issues, especially global warming, McCain seizes the opportunity to distance himself from the man he is seeking to replace as leader of the Republican Party (as well as president). “I have disagreed strongly with the Bush administration on this issue,” he says, touting his credentials as one who has called for a more aggressive government policy on global warming.

ObamadebateHe then mentions nuclear power as something he would aggressively promote as president and criticizes Obama as an opponent of such efforts.

Obama charges McCain with misrepresenting his record, saying, “I favor nuclear power as one component of our overall energy mix.”

6:47 p.m. Asked about offering a long-term plan to ensure the solvency of Social Security and Medicare, Obama briefly pledges to try to do that during a first term. He declines Brokaw’s invitation that he commit to doing so within his first two years in office.

But what he really wants to do is dispute McCain’s characterization of him an unvarnished tax hiker. “The straight-talk express lost a wheel on that one,” Obama says. He then lays out his call for repealing tax cuts enacted under President Bush for the affluent –- those families with incomes exceeding $250,000 a year –- and cutting taxes for others.

Obama has referred several times to the truthlessness of some of McCain's claims about him. McCain, meanwhile, has been swinging at Obama hard, leaving Obama largely on the defensive. But that doesn't mean that McCain is winning. Several times McCain has turned to Obama to pose sarcastic questions -- that could appear mean to voters watching at home.

6:45 p.m. Two quick things about body language: First, McCain is moving around the stage quite a bit -- he is sitting and writing instead of looking at the audience, then standing up when Obama is talking. Obama seems more relaxed.

And as the always-observant Andrew Malcolm notes: Both nominees are left-handed! Like several other recent presidents.

6:43 p.m. Brokaw is trying hard to get the nominees to limit their responses to two minutes. Brokaw say that if the nominees don't mind the time limit, "We're going to have larger deficits than the federal government does."

6:41 p.m. An Internet question comes from “a child of the depression,” asking each candidate what sacrifices, as president, they would demand of citizens who –- despite a raft of crises in recent decades -- have not been asked to make any meaningful sacrifices as of yet.

MccainobamadebateMcCain says he would ask Americans if there will be some government programs “that we may have to eliminate.” He then reiterates his previous call for a spending freeze on all programs but defense, veterans benefits and a selected, unnamed few others.

Obama does not identify a specific government program that he would cut or abolish. Instead, he talks about the need for citizens to start making sacrifices in the ways they live their daily lives. He also disagrees with the call for an across-the-board spending freeze, saying that would be unfair.

6:34 p.m. McCain takes a pass when Brokaw asks him to rank what he would deal with first -- healthcare, the cost of entitlement programs (such as Social Security) or energy. The Republican says all three can be dealt with at the same time.

Obama says energy is most important.

6:31 p.m. A questioner cuts to the chase: How can either party be trusted to grapple with the daunting problems facing the nation?

Obama says he understands “both your frustration and your cynicism.” He then, again, lays much of the blame on President Bush. But then, perhaps realizing that the blame game is exactly what voters don’t want to hear, he talks about his plans. A priority, he says, will be dealing with healthcare costs. Another will be energy costs and its supply.

McCain also spends much of his answer on criticism, labeling Obama a liberal who has no track record of dealing with problems in a bipartisan way. Only at the tail end of his answer does he discuss his goals, mentioning his focus on increasing domestic energy production.

6:14 p.m. Brokaw begins the proceedings on an ominous note, saying that “We still don’t know where the bottom is at this time” with the economy. And the first audience question concerns the nominees' plans to deal with the economic crisis, especially as it is affecting the elderly.

Obama, answering first, gets off his chair, approaches the questioner and reiterates his belief that the country is paying the price for the failed policies of a Republican administration. He also stresses his belief that he is well suited to grapple with the nation’s economic woes. McCain, when it’s his turn, outlines the high points of his economic plan, including providing mortgage relief to some homeowners. Neither directly address the particular problems of older citizens.

McCain does take a veiled shot at Obama, telling his rival “it’s good to be with you at a town-hall meeting.” It's a reference to Obama avoiding McCain’s standing invitation throughout the summer to join him at such forums.

He takes another shot at Obama while answering the second question, "How will the fiscal recovery package help people?" He slams Obama for his ties to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Obama, when it's his turn to speak, lashes back, reminding McCain that one of McCain's campaign managers, Rick Davis,  lobbied for Fannie Mae in the past.

It's a nonsensical thing to argue over: Both Obama and McCain have advisers who have connections with the companies.

6:06 p.m. It’s show time! The nominees are on stage, and the debate is about to begin.

There was a coin toss to determine who would answer each question first, and Obama won that privilege. He also won the coin toss that determined who answered first in the first debate. And his running mate, Joe Biden, won the coin toss to answer first during the vice presidential debate.

The New York Times recently wrote about McCain's propensity to gamble, but it looks like the Democrats may be luckier when it comes to tossing coins.

5:56 p.m. Moderator Tom Brokaw is on stage, prepping the audience. His main point: This encounter is about the nominees and their responses, not audience reaction. So he rather sternly warned the crowd to curb its enthusiasm.

As for the structure of the debate, the nominees will answer questions from the audience (made up of about 80 likely voters from the Nashville area) and from the Internet (more than 6 million questions were submitted online). Each candidate will have two minutes to answer each question, and then there will be a short period for rebuttal.

Although Brokaw had a hand in picking the questions, he will not be allowed to ask follow-ups or make comments. The person who asks the question also will not be allowed to ask follow-ups. Too bad.

5:42 p.m. Hello! And welcome to the second presidential debate. In just a few moments, Barack Obama and John McCain will take the stage at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., to answer questions from voters.

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If the photo to the left is any indication, the stage will be very clean. We don't expect the same of the debate itself. 

Indeed, as our Peter Wallsten notes, the campaign has taken a dirty turn since the nominees met last. Both campaigns have unleashed a barrage of attack ads, and the nominees have toughened up on the stump. McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, said it best at a recent campaign rally in California: "The gloves are off," she told the cheering crowd.

We will be live blogging the debate. If you'd like to watch along with us, we will be streaming it live here.

Stay tuned.

-- Don Frederick/Kate Linthicum

Photo credits, from the top:
Jim Bourg / AP
Mark Humphrey / AP
Mark Wilson / Getty Images
Jim Bourg / AP
Ron Edmonds / AP

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