Trying to regain some momentum for his lagging presidential campaign, John McCain used an often combative presidential debate Tuesday night to try painting Barack Obama as a big government liberal, sure to raise taxes.
The Republican presidential nominee also unveiled a sweeping but ill-defined proposal to have the federal government buy up bad home loans and renegotiate the terms.
"Is it expensive? Yes. But we all know, my friends, until we stabilize home values in America, we're never going to start turning around and creating jobs and fixing our economy,'' said McCain, who in the same forum touted the need to freeze spending. "It's my proposal, it's not Sen. Obama's proposal, it's not President Bush's proposal. But I know how to get America working again."
The town hall-style debate at Belmont University in Nashville was critical for McCain who has been losing ground in national polls and in key battleground state polls. A Mason-Dixon poll released Tuesday showed Obama neck-and-neck with McCain in Florida — 48 percent support for Obama and 46 percent for McCain — a state McCain can't afford to lose.
Obama appeared unruffled by McCain's attacks and repeatedly stressed his focus on middle class Americans.
"This is a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by President Bush and supported by Sen. McCain, that essentially said that we should strip away regulations, consumer protections, let the market run wild, and prosperity would rain down on all of us,'' the Illinois senator said of the economic turmoil on a day when the Dow dropped 500 points.
Town hall-style meetings have long been McCain's strength, and he unsuccessfully pushed for Obama to join him in 10 town hall-style debates early this summer.
As moderator Tom Brokaw struggled to keep the candidates within the time limits — "You may not have noticed, but we have lights around here!" — McCain, 72, did not disguise his disdain for the 47-year-old Obama. "That one,'' is how McCain referred to Obama at one point.
McCain faced a balancing act of wanting to aggressively challenge the Democratic frontrunner without coming off as too harsh and antagonizing to swing voters, particularly in a format that had the two surrounded by those voters. As he did in the first debate, McCain tried to cast Obama as a risky, unproven choice both in dealing with the economy and on foreign policy.
McCain suggested Obama was a naive rookie for having said he would support military action in Pakistan if Osama bin Laden were located there.
"Remarkable,'' scoffed McCain. "You know, if you are a country and you're trying to gain the support of another country, then you want to do everything you can that they would act in a cooperative fashion."
Obama immediately shot back by suggesting McCain would be a potentially reckless commander in chief.
"Now, Sen. McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I'm green behind the ears and I'm just spouting off, and he's somber and responsible,'' he said. "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.' This is the person who, after we had — we hadn't even finished Afghanistan, where he said, 'Next up, Baghdad.' "
Presidential debates rarely dramatically effect campaigns, and with few standout moments Tuesday night's it is unlikely to be much different in that regard. Both candidates largely stuck to familiar themes and lines, and rigid rules often got in the way of free-wheeling interaction, though it did not filter the contentious atmosphere.
McCain accused Obama of being the Senate's second-highest recipient of donations from those associated with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two disgraced mortgage industry giants.
"There were some of us who stood up against it," McCain said of the lead-up to the financial crisis. "There were others who took a hike."
Obama pointed out that McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, has a stake in a Washington lobbying firm that received thousands of dollars a month from Freddie Mac until recently.
The final debate, focused on domestic and economic policy, is set for next Wednesday in Long Island.
The candidates criticized each other on foreign policy, energy, the economy and health care.
"This is the most liberal big-spending record in the United States Senate," McCain said, waving his hand toward Obama. "I have fought against excessive spending and outrages.''
Obama stressed that the vast majority of Americans would see taxes cut under his proposal.
"If you make less than a quarter million dollars a year, you will not see a single dime of your taxes go up,'' Obama said. "Now, when Sen. McCain is proposing tax cuts that would give the average Fortune 500 CEO an additional $700,000 in tax cuts, that's not sharing a burden."
Said McCain: "Nailing down Sen. Obama's various tax proposals is like nailing Jell-O to the wall."
In discussing their starkly different health care proposals, Obama pointed out that McCain would tax the value of health benefits workers receive from their employers.
McCain countered that under his rival's plan "Sen. Obama will fine you" if parents fail to obtain coverage for their children, but had yet to say what the fine would be. "Perhaps we will find that out tonight," he said.
When Brokaw pressed them to name their top priorities — health care, energy or entitlement spending — Obama said his top priority would be energy, followed by health care, while McCain said he would try to focus on all three at the same time.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8241.