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Debate Highlights Security and ‘Understanding’

OXFORD, Miss. - Sen. Barack Obama laced into Sen. John McCain during the first presidential debate on Friday, repeatedly telling McCain “you were wrong” on the key foreign policy issues facing the U.S. Obama blasted McCain for supporting President Bush’s “failed” policies against Iraq and Al Qaeda, tweaked Republicans for failing to catch Osama bin Laden, and chastised McCain for saying the U.S. could “muddle through” in Afghanistan. Obama’s tone was mostly cool and wonkish, but his sparring was more aggressive than his performance during the Democratic primary debates.

McCain gingerly returned fire, reframing most disputes as a challenge to Obama’s aptitude. From assessing the surge to the merits of meeting with the leaders of hostile nations, McCain tried to cut Obama down by saying the young Senator did “not understand” the issues enough to reach a wise position. “[Obama] doesn’t understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia,” said McCain, in a typical line knocking Obama for exhibiting “naivite” on foreign affairs. McCain sounded confident and somber throughout the foreign policy discussions, which dominated the night after an opening exchange on the financial crisis and federal spending.

The mood here at the debate site — admittedly irrelevant compared to the opinions of the TV audience at home — was measured, even bored, throughout much of the evening. Unlike other major debates, there was no singular exchange, be it angry, humorous or otherwise, that the press seized on to define the night.

I think the most striking exchange came near the closing, in response to Jim Lehrer’s expansive question about the prospect of another 9/11-level attack on the U.S. Obama advocated a return to American principles and human rights to restore the nation’s standing in the world, and then he proactively complimented McCain for fighting the use of torture. (Nevermind that McCain interfered with recent legislative efforts to ban torture by all U.S. government officials.) McCain did not respond in kind — instead he launched another talking point salvo at Obama, chastizing him for failing to “understand” the nature of the threats facing the U.S. It was an exchange that could leave viewers thinking McCain was ungracious, unrelenting or even tough, depending on how well he wears after 90 minutes of contemptously engaging his opponent.

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