Presidential hopefuls spar on economy

Barack Obama appears to have gained more independent voters than John McCain after the second debate.

Republican John McCain speaks during his second presidential debate with Democrat Barck Obama (background) at Belmont University's Curb Event Center on October 7, 2008 in Nashville, Tennessee. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Charles Dharapak *** Local Caption ***  431190-01-08.jpg
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On a night believed to be critical to the presidential prospects of John McCain, he and his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, faced off this week at their second debate, sparring on the economy, taxes, Iraq and who has the better judgment to lead America. The stakes were considered higher for Mr McCain, whose campaign has sagged recently as voter anxiety has risen over the economy, an issue that traditionally favours Democrats and, true to that trend, has boosted Mr Obama's poll numbers.

But if Mr McCain had been seeking an all-out game-changer, the post-debate consensus, at least among the political punditry, was that he had not scored one, seemingly leaving him with an ever-steeper climb in the final weeks of the race. A CNN poll conducted immediately after the debate showed Mr Obama had made inroads with a critical group: independents. Fifty-four per cent of independents who watched thought Mr Obama had won, while 28 per cent considered Mr McCain the victor.

The 90-minute town hall-style forum at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, was free of the kind of personal attacks that have characterised the campaign of late, attacks some Republicans think offer the best way for Mr McCain to mount a comeback. Still, the Arizona senator spent much of yesterday night seeking to force his opponent into playing defence. Seizing on lingering concerns over Mr Obama's experience, Mr McCain said repeatedly that the country needs a "steady hand at the tiller" and that, given the range of challenges facing America, "we don't have time for on-the-job training". Mr McCain said that while he has bucked his own party on a range of issues, Mr Obama never has. And he claimed the Illinois Democrat is "wrong" on his commitment to a firm timetable to withdraw US forces from Iraq, as he was with his opposition to the so-called troop surge there.

"Senator Obama would have brought our troops home in defeat," Mr McCain said. "I'll bring them home with victory and with honour." Mr Obama, for his part, immediately linked Mr McCain to George W Bush and the "failed economic policies of the last eight years" and mocked his opponent's recent claim that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong". He questioned Mr McCain's judgment in going in to Iraq in the first place, which he called a distraction from a more pressing terrorist threat in Afghanistan. He also turned against Mr McCain a line the Republican used in the first presidential debate in Oxford, Mississippi, when he repeatedly insisted Mr Obama "didn't seem to understand".

"Senator McCain, in the last debate and today again, suggested that I don't understand. It's true. There are some things I don't understand," Mr Obama said. "I don't understand how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama bin Laden and al Qa'eda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us. That was Senator McCain's judgment, and it was the wrong judgment."

While Tom Brokaw, the longtime NBC News anchor, moderated the debate, questions came from an audience of about 80 voters selected by the Gallup Organisation, which conducts independent polling. One-third were undecided, one-third were leaning Democratic and one-third were leaning Republican. Several questions also came from among tens of thousands submitted online ahead of time. The questions initially focused on the economy, followed by other domestic issues such as tax policy, health care and energy independence, before shifting to foreign affairs.

Mr Obama placed some of the blame for the economic crisis on the kind of market deregulation Mr McCain has supported. Mr McCain railed against a "spending spree" in Washington ? even calling for a spending freeze except on essential programmes like defence and entitlements ? and the country's skyrocketing debt. At the same time, he unveiled a costly new proposal to aid the millions of Americans facing foreclosure on their homes by having the federal government buy up, and effectively refinance, their mortgages.

"Is it expensive? Yes," he said. "But we all know, my friends, until we stabilise home values in America, we're never going to start turning around and creating jobs and fixing our economy. And we've got to give some trust and confidence back to America." At times, the Republican sounded exasperated, at one point referring to Mr Obama as "that one" in explaining which of the two of them had voted for a Senate energy bill he said had been "loaded down with goodies" for oil companies. In several of his responses, Mr McCain seemed to be warning voters that they did not know everything about Mr Obama and his policies.

The candidates will meet next Wednesday for their third and final debate at Hofstra University on Long Island, the last opportunity for voters to see them together on the same stage. With its focus on domestic issues, that encounter will surely include protracted discussion of the trouble economy, an issue that has left Mr McCain on the defensive.