Obama and McCain Clash Over Economy

The gravity of the moment and the somber setting — a town-hall-style meeting in front of 80 selected voters who, when not asking questions, watched in silence, not applauding or laughing — produced an often stifled encounter, largely absent of dramatic confrontations or the personal exchanges that dominated the campaign over the past 24 hours.

Mr. McCain chose not to use the evening — the second of three scheduled debates — to attack Mr. Obama’s background or character. But in a moment that caught the attention of people in both parties, he appeared agitated at one point as he dismissively criticized Mr. Obama’s record in the Senate and referred to his opponent only as “that one.”

Mr. Obama placed the blame for the financial crisis on deregulation and the lack of fiscal discipline under President Bush, whom he repeatedly linked to Mr. McCain. Mr. McCain, at every opportunity, presented his opponent as an advocate of spending and higher taxes, while presenting himself as pragmatic, willing to reach across the aisle and sometimes at odds with Mr. Bush.

Mr. McCain sought to break through by highlighting a proposal under which the Treasury Department would buy up homeowners’ mortgages that had gone bad, and in effect refinance them at prices they could afford. Still, arriving in Nashville for the debate, it was Mr. McCain who was feeling the pressure to do something to break out, with polls suggesting that Mr. Obama was gaining ground and with just one more debate left. There were no obvious dramatic breakthrough moments by Mr. McCain; indeed, although the two men pummeled back and forth, it was Mr. Obama who more consistently sought to draw sharp contrasts between the voting records and campaign promises of the two.

Mr. McCain kept his distance from the types of attacks on Mr. Obama’s background and character launched in recent days by his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin. Not only did he not mention Bill Ayers, the 1960s radical that the McCain campaign — and Ms. Palin in particular– has sought to link to Mr. Obama, he did not mention Ms. Palin once.

Instead, standing in what he has long described as his favorite campaign setting – a town hall meeting, albeit one set up under extraordinary strict restrictions that limited any interaction between candidates and voter – he seemed more the McCain of an earlier campaign, repeatedly presenting himself as the agent who could end partisan division in Washington. Again and again, he criticized Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, invoking the names of such Democratic senators as Ted Kennedy and Russ Feingold, as well as his friend, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who ran for vice president as a Democrat in 200 but has endorsed Mr. McCain,.

“I have a clear record of bipartisanship,” he said “The situation today cries out

for bipartisanship. Senator Obama has never taken on his leaders of his party on a single issue. And we need to reform.”

In a moment that suggested Mr. McCain’s impatience with his opponent, he described the differences between the two candidates on energy policy.

“By the way, my friends, I know you grow a little weary of this back and forth: there was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate, loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney he said. “You who voted for it? You might never know.”

He cast his arm at Mr. Obama. “That one,” he said. “You know who voted against it? Me.”

By contrast, it was Mr. Obama who at every opportunity draw aggressive contrasts between the candidates views on domestic and foreign policy.

“Senator McCain and I actually agree on something,” Mr. Obama said “He said a while back that the big problem with energy is that for the last 30 years politicians in Washington haven’t done anything. What McCain mention is he’s been there 26 of them and during that time he voted 23 times against alternative fuels.”

At another point, Mr. McCain criticized Mr. Obama for saying he would speak, without preconditions, to the leaders of countries like Pakistan, quoting Teddy Roosevelt – at first incorrectly — explaining the way he would deal with leaders of foes.

“You know, my hero is a guy named Teddy Roosevelt,” he said. “Teddy Roosevelt used

to say walk softly — talk softly, but carry a big stick. Senator Obama likes to talk loudly.”

Mr. Obama raised his hand to respond as the moderator, Tom Brokaw – in one of many times he struggled to keep the two men to comport to highly restrictive rules that they had agreed to – sought to move on to the next question

“Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I’m green behind the ears and, you know, I’m just spouting off, and he’s somber and responsible,” he said. “Senator McCain, this is the guy who sang, “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran,” who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don’t think is an example of “speaking softly.”

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