OXFORD, Miss. — After a week of struggling to convince skeptical voters that he could heal the nation's ailing economy, Republican Sen. John McCain found his footing Friday night on the familiar ground of national security, seven times scolding Sen. Barack Obama with the refrain that he just "doesn't understand."
At times combative but more often condescending, McCain used the first presidential debate of the election to showcase his experience on military and diplomatic affairs and to try schooling his younger Democratic opponent on a wide range of issues, from the need to keep fighting in Iraq to the best way to handle rogue regimes like Iran.
Although Obama opened strong on early questions about the economy and the welfare of the middle class, where polls show voters trust him most, McCain grew more confident when the topic turned to overseas matters. McCain, 72, used words like "naivete" to describe Obama and to set himself apart from — and above — his rival.
"There are some advantages to experience, and knowledge, and judgment," McCain summarized. "I don't think I need any on-the-job training. I'm ready to go at it right now.''
McCain's corollary throughout the debate, of course, was that Obama is not. Noting that Obama opposed the surge of troops now credited with helping stabilize Iraq, McCain said, "I understand why Sen. Obama was surprised and said that the surge succeeded beyond his wildest expectations.
"It didn't exceed beyond mine, because I know that that's a strategy that has worked and can succeed," he lectured. "But if we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and adopt Sen. Obama's plan, then we will have a wider war and it will make things more complicated throughout the region, including in Afghanistan."
It was the debate that almost wasn't, as McCain shocked friend and foe alike with the announcement Wednesday that he was suspending his campaign — and canceling his debate appearance — in order to rush to Washington to help negotiate the $700-billion Wall Street bailout. The move fit neatly into his campaign, whose slogan is, after all, Country First. But McCain faced criticism from Democrats, many analysts and even some Republicans that the abrupt move looked more like a grand gesture than genuine help.
What's more, shifting the hot spotlight of presidential politics to the delicate negotiations between the White House and Capitol Hill seemed only to complicate matters. Declarations by senior congressional Republicans and Democrats that a deal was near were rescinded Thursday night, but by Friday morning McCain announced that enough progress had been made to allow him to return to the race and the debate.
The stated topics of this first debate were national security and foreign affairs, areas where polls show McCain enjoys an advantage in trust among voters. (To drive home the point, just before the debate began, McCain's campaign sent out a notice that 300 retired admirals and generals had endorsed him today.)
But moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS made it clear beforehand that he felt free to ask them about the troubled national economy, the top concern for most Americans and a global crisis in itself. He started by asking the candidates where they stood on the bailout package and on fixing the economy in general.
Since Lehman Bros. failed last week, McCain has slipped in many polls, and a performance highlighting his command of the economy or his empathy for a fretful middle class could have helped him. But McCain fell back to safe ground there, too, talking once again about the need to end $18-billion a year in federal pork barrel spending. To pay for the bailout package, he suggested a spending freeze might be in order for all but the most essential federal functions.
But $18-billion seems like pocket change compared with a nearly $1-trillion bailout, and indeed it is a minuscule part of the federal budget, as Obama delighted in pointing out. McCain seemed to struggle as Obama attacked him for his longtime opposition to regulation — arguing that it was partly McCain's fault for getting the country into this mess — and his plan to continue cutting taxes for big corporations and the very wealthy.
"We're going to have to intervene, there's not doubt about that, but we're also going to have to look at, how is it that we shredded so many regulations? We did not set up a 21st century regulatory framework to deal with these problems. And that in part has to do with an economic philosophy that says that regulation is always bad."
But soon that part was over, and McCain was lecturing.
After Obama blamed U.S. policy that turned the Pakistani people against America by supporting Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a dictator, McCain scolded: "I don't think that Sen. Obama understands that there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power."
Obama was by no means powerless, and McCain held no reservations about taking Obama's past statements out of context, such as accusing Obama of threatening to bomb Pakistan. But Obama was clearly on his heels and tended toward nuanced — and sometimes long-winded — explanations of his position to recover.
Consider the exchange in which McCain accused him of naivete for saying the United States should meet, without preconditions, with leaders of North Korea, Cuba and other enemies, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Obama, 46, correctly pointed out that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a McCain adviser, and even the Bush administration have called for talks with Iran. "I reserve the right, as president of the United States to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it's going to keep America safe," he said.
McCain argued there's a right way to do it, though.
"What Sen. Obama doesn't seem to understand is that if, without precondition, you sit down across the table from someone who has called Israel a 'stinking corpse,' and wants to destroy that country and wipe it off the map, you legitimize those comments," McCain snapped. "This is dangerous. It isn't just naive; it's dangerous."