Round 1: Obama Wins Oxford Debate, Polls Say

Jean Tripp, 34, of Alabama, expected nothing short of "fire and brimstone" when she came to Oxford to hear presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain square off in the first presidential debate on Sept. 26.

"I was expecting Obama to tear McCain apart, but McCain did just fine, I thought. McCain was on the attack and landed some good hits," she said, as she stood among the crowd of hundreds watching the debate Friday night on the University of Mississippi campus.

Tripp is an Obama supporter, although her preference was not initially clear. When asked why she was supporting Obama, she did not hesitate.

"The economy," she said. "Where have you been? This is all their (Republicans') fault. They're the ones who had it (the White House, Congress). They owned the government for almost a decade, and now they want it again. Our guy should have let McCain have it all. He was too nice."

Free-fall Economy
No doubt, the economy is in tatters, with the Dow dropping nearly 800 points Monday with the news of the U.S. House of Representatives failing to approve a historic $700 billion bailout for Wall Street. Lending institutions that have been veritable paragons of stability—at least until recently—renounced the free-market philosophy and crawled to Congress this month with open hands and a newfound love of what some call socialism.

McCain is working hard to separate himself from the Republican brand on issues of the economy as the American market crumbles, and painted himself as a man with a stick and a woodshed to deal with his fellow congressional members and the demon issue of earmarks.

"We Republicans came to power to change government, and government changed us. And the—the worst symptom of this disease is what my friend, Tom Coburn, calls earmarking as a gateway drug, because it's a gateway. It's a gateway to out-of-control spending and corruption. And we have former members of Congress now residing in federal prison because of the evils of this earmarking and pork-barrel spending," McCain told moderator Jim Lehrer during the debate. "... I've got a pen, and I'm going to veto every single spending bill that comes across my desk. I will make them famous. You will know their names."

McCain then attempted to paint Obama, a Democrat who entered the Senate in 2004, as one of the causes of the nation's financial hemorrhage, explaining that Obama requested "a million dollars (in earmarks) for every day that he's been in the United States Senate."

Obama conceded that earmarks were a problem, but played down their role in the destabilization of the U.S. government, compared to the tax breaks on wealthy corporation and their CEO's.

"... Let's be clear: Earmarks account for $18 billion in last year's budget. Sen. McCain is proposing—and this is a fundamental difference between us—$300 billion in tax cuts to some of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country, $300 billion. Now, $18 billion is important; $300 billion is really important. And in his tax plan, you would have CEOs of Fortune 500 companies getting an average of $700,000 in reduced taxes, while leaving 100 million Americans out," Obama said, adding that the country should attempt to "grow the economy from the bottom up," by pushing for "a tax cut for 95 percent of working families."

Obama also could not abandon his position on that aspect of the economy without a parting shot at McCain and Republicans:

"Over time, that, I think, is going to be a better recipe for economic growth than the policies of President Bush that John McCain wants to follow."

McCain, who has regularly opposed earmarking as an Arizona senator—if not entirely, according to The New York Times—continued to beat the earmark issue as one of his campaign's strong points.

"Maybe to Senator Obama it's not a lot of money. But the point is that—you see, I hear this all the time. 'It's only $18 billion.' Do you know that it's tripled in the last five years? ... I have fought against (earmarks all) my career. I have fought against it," he said, and added that Obama also proposed "$800 billion in new spending on new programs."

"Now, that's a fundamental difference between myself and Senator Obama. I want to cut spending. I want to keep taxes low. The worst thing we could do in this economic climate is to raise people's taxes," McCain said.

Information from the Heritage Foundation reveals that the number of earmarks out of Congress has been on a roller-coaster ride over the last five years, rather than a steady climb. In 2005 the number of pork products coming out of Congress was 13,997. In 2006, that number dropped to 9,963. In 2007, the figure plummeted to 2,658. In 2008, however, the figure climbed back up to 11,737, the second highest since 1991.

Obama disputed McCain's inaccurate figures, but took pride in his willingness to promote "a health care system that allows for everyone to have basic coverage."

"John, nobody is denying that $18 billion is important. And, absolutely, we need earmark reform. And when I'm president, I will go line-by-line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely. But the fact is that eliminating earmarks alone is not a recipe for how we're going to get the middle class back on track. And when you look at your tax policies that are directed primarily at those who are doing well, and you are neglecting people who are really struggling right now, I think that is a continuation of the last eight years, and we can't afford another four," Obama said.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told the Jackson Free Press that McCain would prove to be the real economic reformer once he won the presidency, despite his party's president overseeing the complete meltdown of the economy.

"What happened to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is a blight on all our houses—the source of this is out-of-control lobbying and unregulated private enterprise. And if you had to go in and pick someone to clean up corruption, I would argue that McCain has got more guts than anyone else has," Graham said just before the debate.

Going for the Mid-Section
Obama reached out to the middle class numerous times during the debate. Some news analysts noted McCain made no reference to the middle class at all.

The Democrat's tactic paid off among middle-class voters, according to polls.

A Monday Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, which surveyed 448 registered voters who had participated with the same pollster a week earlier and who watched the debate, found Obama as more likely to improve upon the nation's faltering economy. Obama's numbers among the group inched up one point to a 49 percent mark over McCain's 44 percent. Last week, the same respondents gave Obama a 48 percent rating over McCain's 45 percent.

A number of factors leading up to the debate likely played a part in the tiny uptick. Earlier this month, McCain committed the serious gaffe of describing the "fundamentals" of the nation's economy as "strong."

To be fair, McCain was attempting to allay supporters' fears during a routine campaign stop, telling supporters that "there's been tremendous turmoil in our financial markets and Wall Street, and it is—people are frightened by these events. Our economy, I think, still the fundamentals of our economy are strong. But these are very, very difficult times. And I promise you, we will never put America in this position again. We will clean up Wall Street. We will reform government," McCain said.

The Obama camp aggressively attacked the "fundamental" portion of the statement, describing McCain as inept on the economy. McCain later clarified his statement, claiming the "fundamentals" of the economy represented American workers.

Still the quote made McCain vulnerable enough for Obama to exploit it on the night of the debate:

"We also have to recognize that (our bad economy) is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most, and somehow prosperity will trickle down. It hasn't worked. And I think that the fundamentals of the economy have to be measured by whether or not the middle class is getting a fair shake."

McCain tried to clarify his earlier remarks during the first part of the debate:

"I have a fundamental belief in the goodness and strength of the American worker. And the American worker is the most productive, the most innovative. America is still the greatest producer, exporter and importer," McCain said. "But we've got to get through these times, but I have a fundamental belief in the United States of America. And I still believe, under the right leadership, our best days are ahead of us."

McCain committed what many observers considered a mistake in asking Obama to delay the debate until Congress agreed on a plan to pull Wall Street out of its crisis. The senator announced the week of the debate that he would suspend his campaign, skip the debate and return to Washington to help with negotiations over a congressional bailout package.

Fox News commentators and McCain supporters immediately jumped behind the senator's decision, some claiming that Obama was derelict in his own duties in not suspending his own campaign and appearing in Washington alongside McCain. University of Mississippi officials told the media, however, that the school had invested more than $5 million in the debate, which had been in planning for months. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank—a Democrat—helped beat down McCain's decision.

"McCain is Andy Kaufman in his Mighty Mouse costume—'Here I Come to Save the Day,'" Frank told Politico.com the day before the debate, and described McCain's input as "not helpful."

"He hasn't been involved (in the bail-out)," Frank said. "He doesn't know anything about it."

Fighting numerous accusations that his decision to duck the debate was a political stunt, McCain about-faced and jetted to Mississippi for the debate on Friday, though damage may have already been done, and there was no bailout.

That little maneuver, by itself, was viewed unfavorably by 46 percent of debate-watchers, in the Times/Bloomberg poll, who said they believed McCain was "playing politics."

Thirty-eight percent told pollsters that McCain was actually "acting for the good of the country."

The theme of the debate was foreign policy, but Lehrer did not avoid questions on the economy during the early portion, especially with the economy and the bailout on the minds of most Americans, according to polls.

McCain's Republican Economy
McCain continued to work a slight disadvantage during the economic portion, however, even when dredging up the proven-popular Republican line of protecting small businesses.

McCain attacked Obama's position on an increased tax on wealthy businesses, claiming that U.S. business "pays the second-highest business taxes in the world, 35 percent."

"Ireland pays 11 percent," McCain continued. "Now, if you're a business person, and you can locate any place in the world, then, obviously, if you go to the country where it's 11 percent tax versus 35 percent, you're going to be able to create jobs, increase your business, make more investment, etcetera. I want to cut that business tax. I want to cut it so that businesses will remain in the United States of America and create jobs."

Obama admitted business taxes in America were high "on paper," but pointed out that, "here there are so many loopholes that have been written into the tax code—oftentimes with the support of Senator McCain—that we actually see our businesses pay effectively one of the lowest tax rates in the world."

Obama then took the argument back to the struggle of the middle class. "There are people out there who are working every day, who are not getting a tax cut ... It's not like you want to close the loopholes. You just want to add an additional tax cut over the loopholes. And that's a problem," Obama said.

Regarding health care, McCain called for a tax cut to free up income so people "can afford private health-care insurance."

"I want people to have tax cuts. I want every family to have a $5,000 refundable tax credit so they can go out and purchase their own health care. I want to double the dividend from $3,500 to $7,000 for every dependent child in America," McCain said.

Obama argued that McCain would also opt to tax health benefits, even as he would drop the insurance deduction for businesses.

"So you may end up getting a $5,000 tax credit," Obama said. "Here's the only problem: Your employer now has to pay taxes on the health care that you're getting from your employer (under McCain's plan). And if you end up losing your health care from your employer, you've got to go out on the open market and try to buy it."

Obama supporters like Kerry Holoman—-at first mistaken to be a McCain supporter by his proximity to a group of Republicans wearing "McCain/Palin" T-shirts—said McCain's plan on health care wasn't enough.

"Right now I need three cavities fixed and a root canal. My dentist tells me it's going to cost me more than $1,700 for all the work I need," Holoman said flatly. "I can't afford that. I have too many other bills to pay. We're the only wealthy country on the planet that doesn't cover health care, and I want that to change. I want that to change now. Right, f*cking now. Quote it just like that."

But McCain said he is leery of "socialized" health care similar to that of Britain and Canada, and made clear during the debate that he had no plan to "(hand) the health-care system over to the federal government, which is basically what would ultimately happen with Senator Obama's health-care plan."

The Arizona senator's health-care plan instead seemed to pivot solely upon lowering taxes by slashing government programs.

"Spending restraint has got to be a vital part of it. One of the major reasons why we're in the difficulties we are in today is because spending got out of control. ... And I (have) plans to reduce and eliminate unnecessary and wasteful spending, and if there's anybody here who thinks there aren't agencies of government where spending can be cut and their budgets slashed, they have not spent a lot of time in Washington," McCain said.

At one point, McCain suggested a spending freeze on federal programs "on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs," such as Social Security.

Obama called McCain's solution unfit for the problem, saying the freeze amounted to "(using) a hatchet where you need a scalpel."

"There are some programs that are very important that are under-funded," Obama said. "I want to increase early childhood education, and the notion that we should freeze that when there may be, for example, this Medicare subsidy, just doesn't make sense."

Obama then brought up the issue of the war in Iraq, which costs, according to some estimates, about $250 million a day. "We are currently spending $10 billion a month in Iraq when they have a $79 billion surplus. It seems to me that if we're going to be strong at home as well as strong abroad, that we have to look at bringing that war to a close," he said.

McCain stuck unwaveringly with the cuts argument, however: "Look, we are sending $700 billion a year overseas to countries that don't like us very much. Some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations. We have to have wind, tide, solar, natural gas, flex fuel cars and all that, but we also have to have offshore drilling, and we also have to have nuclear power."

Obama did not point out that McCain's support for flex-fuel ran counter to his opposition for ethanol subsidies, which are currently the cornerstone of flex-fuel development. McCain had said minutes earlier that he would "eliminate ethanol subsidies. I oppose ethanol subsidies."

The War and the President
The argument focused more levelly upon the war during the second half of the debate, with Lehrer asking both candidates what lessons they took from the war in Iraq.

Obama said he believed the lesson to be drawn was that "we have to use our military wisely. And we did not use our military wisely in Iraq."

McCain dismissed the bad decisions at the onset of the Iraq war. "The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we (should have gone) into Iraq or not. The next president of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave and what we leave behind," McCain said, and then hammered Obama for incorrectly predicting that the surge would be a failure.

"Senator Obama said the surge could not work, said it would increase sectarian violence, said it was doomed to failure. Recently on a television program, he said it exceeded our wildest expectations. Yet, after conceding that, he still says that he would oppose the surge if he had to decide that again today," McCain said.

One McCain supporter, later identified as Tye Tyson of Memphis, threw his hand in the air at the statement. "Got him," he told his friend as the two stood watching the debate in the Ole Miss grove.

"Senator McCain is absolutely right that the violence has been reduced as a consequence of the extraordinary sacrifice of our troops and our military families," Obama conceded soberly. "... But understand, that was a tactic designed to contain the damage of the previous four years of mismanagement of this war. ... John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. 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 Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong. ... If the question is who is best-equipped as the next president to make good decisions about how we use our military, how we make sure that we are prepared and ready for the next conflict, then I think we can take a look at our judgment."

Obama's statement drew cheers from other factions within the crowd.

On the continuing issue of Pakistan, McCain said he would not pull support from anti-secessionist Pakistanis. He said that he would call for more troops for the region, but would also call for a new strategy to deal with the volatile territory.

"We're going to have to help the Pakistanis go into these areas and obtain the allegiance of the people. And it's going to be tough. They've intermarried with al Qaeda and the Taliban. And it's going to be tough. But we have to get the cooperation of the people in those areas," McCain said.

Obama was more willing to be critical of past U.S. policy in the region:

"[F]or 10 years, we coddled Musharraf, we alienated the Pakistani population, because we were anti-democratic. We had a 20th-century mindset that basically said, 'Well, you know, he may be a dictator, but he's our dictator,' and as a consequence, we lost legitimacy in Pakistan. We spent $10 billion. And in the meantime, they weren't going after al Qaeda, and they are more powerful now than at any time since we began the war in Afghanistan," Obama said. "That's going to change when I'm president of the United States."

Supporters for both walked away with the distinct feeling that either their candidate had won or the debate had ended in a draw.

"I believe McCain came out on top. Of course, I more identify with his philosophy toward government," said Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Brad White. "Obama is obviously very charming and comes across well behind the podium, but he didn't offer anything of substance. He can say generalities such as we want the state to do well and we want to move the country forward, but he never says ... how we're going to pay for the programs that he's wanting. Obama had a little more style, but McCain had a little more substance."

Memphis resident Hilda Ratcliff agreed that experience was McCain's strong point, and that it won him the debate. "McCain knew what he was talking about. I think he's the more experienced candidate and his experience was clear in this debate," she said

Her opinion differed from that of Ken Burch, third-shift cook and manager of a Chevron gas station on South Lamar Street, in Oxford. Burch had been watching the televised debate as he scrubbed grease off the fryer at the food mart.

"I really felt Obama won the debate hands down," Burch said. "He talked like a president. He had the demeanor of a president. I really felt that he could lead this country out of the turmoil that it is in. To be 100 percent honest, I don't think McCain has the ability, much less the initiative or the enthusiasm to run this country. He didn't show me nothing tonight."

While Obama supporters polled at the Oxford debate seemed confident their candidate had won, they also were more apt to criticize their own candidate. Sidney Jenkins said Obama could and should have been more blistering during the battle.

"I know (Obama's) got the needs of the middle class in his heart, but there were a couple of times when he could have really hurt McCain," Jenkins said. "Through the whole debate I don't think McCain even looked at Obama even once. I think (Obama) agreed and nodded his head too much for me. He was too nice, and that's not what we need right now."

Obama, for instance, could have viciously deflected McCain's accusation of his flickering support for war funding, painting it as an attack on troops. Obama explained during the debate that he had chosen not to support a contentious war funding bill because it did not set a timetable and had attempted to put no limitations on Congress' blank check for the war.

He did mention McCain's refusal to fund a Democrat-favored bill that also funded the war but set a timetable for withdrawal. Obama could also have viciously skewered McCain, a Vietnam veteran, for refusing to fund a G.I. bill that would have provided more money for Iraq War veterans with debilitating mental and physical trauma. McCain also opposed the 21st Century G.I. Bill, which would have provided a full college education to veterans, claiming the bill needed to require soldiers to serve more time in order to qualify for the paid education.

A number of veteran-advocate groups like The Council for a Livable World's Veterans Alliance for Security and Democracy and the Maine Veterans for Change have endorsed Obama, and specifically cite McCain's opposition to many veteran-friendly bills as reason for backing the Illinois senator. The Associated Press reported in August that active troops have given more to Obama's campaign than to McCain's.

Playing with Porcupines
Many Democrats, starving to be back in power after an eight-year hiatus, are clearly willing for Obama to take a more aggressive stance in the debate. The Illinois senator's exceptionally cool demeanor was criticized as a lack of passion in the heavily liberal sections of the blogosphere.

"I thought Obama was effective, but there are several things that I wish he would be more aggressive about," said Marty Wiseman, executive director of Mississippi State University's John C. Stennis Institute of Government. "There are aspects of McCain's health-care plan that scares the daylights out of me. He's going to tax employer-provided health-care benefits to pay for tax credits so I can go to State Farm and get rated for $1,000 a month or get turned down entirely. It'll do nothing but transfer money to private insurance companies who may or may not choose to insure me, and Obama needs to pound his fist a little bit and say, 'people will not stand for it.'"

Wiseman's son, Parker Wiseman, president of the Mississippi Young Democrats, said Obama's demeanor was "perfect for the situation," possibly meaning perfect for a debate between a senior citizen and a young man who needed to try hard not to let the debate look like a mugging.

"For Obama to be any more aggressive would have come off as confrontational or condescending. Obama needed to do one thing, and he did it," Wiseman said. "He needed to look presidential."

The senator's cucumber coolness may have won him a victory in this first of three debates. The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll is not the only one estimating an Obama victory. A special USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted on Saturday also gave Obama the edge over John McCain as having done the better job in the debate, by a 46 percent to 34 percent margin.

The polls also showed that women preferred the less combative demeanor of Obama over McCain's apparent condescension toward his younger opponent.

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