OXFORD, Miss. — John McCain and Barack Obama clashed over Iraq, Iran and world affairs in the first of three critical debates Friday, and they also sparred over the economy as the Wall Street crisis pushed its way onto the agenda.
McCain, 72, repeatedly suggested that Obama was naive and didn't understand the world's complexities. Obama, 47, challenged McCain's judgment, working to undercut his image as a potential commander-in-chief as the historic election campaign entered its final weeks.
There were light moments as well, as each man got off at least one zinger:
"John mentioned me being wildly liberal — mostly that's just me opposing George Bush's policies," Obama said at one point.
Referring to the Wall Street mess, McCain made light of his age, calling it "the greatest fiscal crisis, probably in, certainly in our time, and I've been around a little while."
But mostly they were serious and on edge.
The two men offered sharply different views of Iraq — Obama insisted his early opposition signaled his superior judgment for future decisions, while McCain stressed that his push for a surge of extra troops showed that he knows how to win.
They also differed on how to handle Iran. McCain criticized Obama's willingness to talk without preconditions to leaders of Iran or any other renegade country and Obama insisted that refusing to talk to adversaries doesn't punish them and hasn't worked.
The two men were supposed to spend the 90-minute debate entirely on foreign affairs and national security, leaving the economy and domestic issues to the second and third debates scheduled for October.
But with financial markets in turmoil and the government locked in high profile talks about a $700 billion bailout, the two major party candidates found themselves differing over the proposed bailout, how it might force either of them to change their plans as president, and how their tax plans might help or hurt a struggling economy.
McCain lauded the fact that Democrats and Republicans were working together on a bailout plan and predicted they would reach agreement.
"As we're here, we are seeing for the first time in a long time, Republicans and Democrats sitting down together," McCain said. "This isn't the beginning of the end of this crisis. This is the end of the beginning," he said.
"We haven't seen the language yet," Obama said, but added, "I am optimistic about the capacity of us to come together." He blamed years of Republican faith in deregulation for helping to cause the crisis.
Both men were pressed to tell voters how the costs of the Wall Street bailout might force the next president to curtail or change plans laid out in campaign promises.
"There are a range of things that are probably going to have to be delayed," Obama said. One possible casualty, he said, would be a delayed investment in energy. "I'm not willing to give up the need to do it, but there may be individual components of it that we can't do."
McCain stressed that he'd cut government spending, something he's proposed even before the Wall Street mess. "We've got to examine every agency of government," he said.
He said he'd cut subsidies for ethanol as an example, and suggested a spending freeze on all federal spending except that for defense, veterans care and entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.
Obama shot back that McCain had supported President Bush's budgets. "It's been your president, whom you said you agree with 90 percent of the time, who presided over this orgy of spending."
McCain criticized Obama for being among those senators who seek "pork barrel" earmark spending for their home states.
Obama countered that earmarks were an important but small part of the budget, but said he'd stopped seeking them anyway. He said that McCain's proposed tax cuts would cost $300 billion and benefit the wealthy and corporations, while earmarks totaled only $18 billion last year. "$18 billion is important. $300 billion is really important," Obama said.
McCain said it was true that earmarks only totaled $18 billion last year, but said they’d tripled in the last 5 years and were symbolic of corruption. And he said that Obama only stopped seeking earmarks after he started running for president.
On taxes, McCain slammed Obama, saying he would raise taxes on people making as little as $42,000 a year. "The worst thing we could do is raise taxes on anybody," McCain said.
"That’s not true," Obama shot back, noting that he would only raise income taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year. "Ninety five percent of you will get a tax cut," Obama said.
Turning to Iraq, the two men clashed over the decision to go to war — McCain was for it and Obama opposed — and the decision to send more troops — McCain was for it, and Obama opposed.
Obama said that McCain's original decision to support the invasion of Iraq was a critical guide to knowing "who is best equipped as the next president to make good decisions."
McCain brushed aside that criticism. The next president, he said, will not have to decide whether to go into Iraq, but how to get out.
On Iran, McCain ridiculed Obama's repeated statements that he'd meet with rogue leaders such as Iran's president.
"What Senator Obama doesn't seem to understand 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 said. "This is dangerous. It isn't just naive; it's dangerous."
Obama said his willingness to meet rogue leaders did not mean he would endorse their position. "It doesn't mean that you invite them over for tea one day," he said. He agreed with McCain that stronger sanctions against Iran are needed. "We cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran," he said.
McCain also defended his harder stance against Russia after the Russian invasion of Georgia.
After considerable tension, the debate went on as planned when McCain announced Friday that sufficient progress had been made on a bailout of the financial system and flew to Mississippi.
THE REST OF THE DEBATES
Oct. 2. 9 p.m. EDT. Vice presidential debate on all topics at Washington University in St. Louis, 90 minutes moderated by PBS's Gwen Ifill.
Oct. 7. 9 p.m. EDT. Presidential debate on all topics in town hall setting at Belmont University in Nashville, 90 minutes moderated by NBC's Tom Brokaw.
Oct. 15. 9 p.m. EDT. Presidential debate on domestic issues at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, 90 minutes moderated by Bob Schieffer of CBS
WHERE WERE BARR AND NADER?
The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which sets up the debates, only allows those candidates who have the support of at least 15 percent nationally as measured by an average of five polls.
Libertarian candidate Bob Barr and independent candidate Ralph Nader did not have enough support.
The last third party candidate included in the debates was Ross Perot in 1992.
The commission is chaired by the former chairmen of the Democratic and Republican parties.
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