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First presidential debate was a night of contrasts

Liz Sidoti

WASHINGTON — Liberal and Democrat vs. conservative and Republican. Taller, younger and black vs. shorter, older and white.

It was a night of contrasts as Barack Obama and John McCain shared a stage last Friday in their first of three presidential debates.

The only similarities: a lack of specifics, a reliance on campaign-trail sound bites and an inability to answer a question directly.

Who won? The scoring is done at home by voters, and the outcome depends on how they judged each candidate’s temperament and tone.

When McCain’s voice rose with indignation over Iraq, Iran and the U.S. financial bailout, did he come across as passionate or intemperate? When Obama delivered a studious answer about meetings with foreign leaders, did viewers see a thoughtful candidate or a detached Democrat?

This debate, primarily focused on foreign policy, was supposed to be McCain’s sweet spot and a stiff challenge for Obama. But the first-term Illinois senator held his own, displaying a comfortable understanding of what was considered his toughest policy subject. So did McCain — but the four-term Arizona senator was expected to.

Appearances were striking from the time the two walked onto the stage at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

Obama, age 47, 6-foot-1 and black, glided; McCain, age 72, 5-foot-9 and white moved with a quick gait. The rivals shook hands and took their positions behind a pair of podiums.

As the debate opened, moderator Jim Lehrer prodded the two to directly engage with each other and encouraged skirmishing. This was, after all, the first time each was able to answer the other’s months of criticisms directly.

It took a few questions, but then the charges and counter-charges came easily to both. The back-and-forth gained intensity throughout the 90-minute debate, though civility was never lost.

Both landed their punches and stuck to their playbooks.

McCain repeatedly found new ways to label his rival a liberal, while Obama kept calling McCain an extension of George W. Bush.

“It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left,” McCain said of Obama. On Iraq, Afghanistan and other issues, Obama mentioned “Senator McCain and President Bush” in one breath.

At times, both candidates struggled to keep their composure, and their dislike for each another showed through.

When Obama assailed McCain’s tax proposals and accused him of wanting to give another $4 billion in tax breaks to oil companies, McCain smiled tightly, chuckled and said: “With all due respect, you already gave them to the oil companies.”

And, as McCain criticized Obama’s position on last year’s troop increase strategy in Iraq, Obama smirked, pursed his lips and muttered repeatedly: “That’s not true.”

Each took shots at the other.

In an exchange with Obama about meeting with foreign leaders, McCain said: “I’m not going to set the White House visitors schedule before I’m president of the United States. I don’t even have a seal yet.” It was a reference to an Obama campaign crest, modeled after the White House seal, that made a brief appearance on a podium at an Obama event.

Obama, in turn, agreed with McCain that presidents must be prudent in what they say about foreign policy. Then he questioned the credibility of McCain on that principle, given that he “has threatened extinction for North Korea” and “sung songs about bombing Iran.”

In 1994, McCain said that he knew what North Korean leaders understood “and that is the threat of extinction.” He also once answered a question about military action against Iran with the chorus of the Beach Boys classic “Barbara Ann.”

On questions of international affairs, McCain showed his mastery of facts and names and history, while Obama was crisp and commanding.

It was McCain who struggled with the name of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even though he clearly knows the pronunciation and spoke it flawlessly minutes later.

Given the stakes for Obama, what would the fallout have been had he stumbled?

The Republican also frequently provided a history lesson, talking of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower before the D-Day invasion, President Reagan’s decision in the 1980s to keep troops in Lebanon, Richard M. Nixon’s outreach to China in the 1970s, and his own Vietnam service.

Such comments were a double-edged sword: they underscored his experience but also reminded people of his senior-citizen status.

Liz Sidoti covers the presidential campaign for The Associated Press and has covered national politics since 2003.

(Associated Press)