The US presidential candidates clashed over the Iraq war and the nation’s economic future in their first head-to-head debate of the 2008 election.
Barack Obama wasted no time in tying his Republican rival John McCain to the unpopular presidency of George Bush, saying the financial crisis engulfing the country was the “final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by President Bush and supported by Senator McCain”.
But Mr McCain accused his Democratic rival of refusing to fund US troops while Mr Obama repeatedly told the Arizona senator: “You were wrong (on Iraq)”.
Initial reaction from US political pundits declared the University of Mississippi debate a tie, with Mr McCain not performing as well as he might have hoped on foreign policy, his strongest area, and Mr Obama appearing hesitant at times.
Mr McCain had also backed down hours before, agreeing to attend the debate after originally calling for it to be delayed unless the Bush administration’s 700 billion dollar (£380bn) rescue plan had been agreed.
Asked directly whether they intended to vote for the rescue plan, Mr Obama said: “We haven’t seen the language yet. I do think there is constructive work being done.”
Mr McCain added: “I hope so.”
Mr Obama said there was “no doubt” that the financial crisis was “going to affect our budgets” and agreed the cost of the recovery plan would mean some of his ambitious plans for the presidency would have to be put on hold.
But he said there were some things that had to be done, including giving the US energy independence, a healthcare system and investments in science, education and the nation’s infrastructure.
Mr McCain said “no matter what we’ve got to cut spending” and accused Mr Obama of having “the most liberal voting record in the US Senate”.
“Mostly that’s just me opposing George Bush’s wrong-headed policies,” Mr Obama replied.
Mr McCain also said he would consider a “spending freeze” on everything except for veterans’ welfare, national defence and other key issues.
But Mr Obama said that would be akin to using a “hatchet when you need a scalpel”.
More than a third of the debate, which lasted more than 90 minutes, was devoted to the candidates’ economic plans, despite its main focus being on foreign affairs.
“There isn’t a country on earth that saw its economy decline and yet maintained its military superiority so this is a national security issue,” Mr Obama said.
Turning to foreign affairs and national security, Mr McCain accused the Democrat of doing the “incredible thing of voting to cut off funds for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan”, a reference to legislation that cleared the US Senate more than a year ago.
Mr Obama disagreed and said he had opposed funding in a bill that presented a “blank cheque” to the Pentagon while Mr McCain had opposed money in legislation that included a timetable for troop withdrawal.
“You were wrong” on Iraq, Mr Obama repeated three times in succession, adding: “John, you like to pretend the war began in 2007.”
The stakes were high as the two men walked on stage and stood behind their identical wooden podiums – Mr McCain aiming to become the oldest first-term US president at 72 and Mr Obama, 47, the country’s first president with African-American ancestry.
The latest polls give Mr Obama a modest lead and indicated he was viewed more favourably than his rival when it came to dealing with the economy. But the same surveys showed Mr McCain was favoured by far on foreign policy.
On Afghanistan, Mr Obama said more troops were needed “as quickly as possible” because the situation was “getting worse not better”.
“We cannot separate Afghanistan from Iraq because our commanders have said we do not have the troops right now to deal with Afghanistan,” he said.
He also accused Mr McCain of saying that the US could “muddle through” Afghanistan.
The Republican replied: “We will prevail in Afghanistan, but we need a new strategy and we need it to succeed.”
Mr McCain also accused Mr Obama of acting irresponsibly by threatening military strikes on Pakistan.
“Nobody talked about attacking Pakistan,” Mr Obama replied.
He said he had said that if the US had Osama bin Laden or other terrorist leaders in its sights and Pakistan was unable or unwilling to act “then we should take them out”.
Mr Obama also accused Mr McCain of having “threatened extinction for North Korea” and “sung songs about bombing Iran”.
Both men agreed that a nuclear Iran would be a serious problem, with Mr McCain saying it would pose an “existential threat” and Mr Obama calling it a “game-changer”.
The Illinois senator also defended his policy of sitting down with leaders of countries such as Iran “without preconditions”.
“We should not expect to solve every problem before having talks,” he said.
Mr McCain insisted that the policy “isn’t just naive, it’s dangerous”.
The Republican also accused Mr Obama of “naivety” and said he did not understand “that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia”.
“I looked into (Russian prime minister) Mr (Vladimir) Putin’s eyes and I saw three letters: a K, a G and a B,” Mr McCain said.
But Mr Obama said America’s “entire Russian approach has to be re-evaluated because a resurgent and very aggressive Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region”.
But he added that the US could not “return to a cold war posture”.
Asked about the chances of another September 11-type terror attack, both men agreed the US was safer but that there was more work to be done.
Mr Obama added that as president he wanted to “restore America’s standing in the world” as “we are less respected now than we were eight years ago, or even four years ago”.