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McCain, Obama Debate Focuses On Economy

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

ARI SHAPIRO, Host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro, sitting in for Renee Montagne. Senator John McCain's campaign spoke this week of turning the page from the economy to other issues. There was no chance of that at last night's presidential debate. The candidates met on the same day that the Dow Jones Industrials lost another 500 points.

INSKEEP: Even as Barack Obama and John McCain took questions from voters, Asian markets were beginning another plunge. The drops came in response to more fears about the credit markets and talk of recession, and news like that provided the starting point of the discussion moderated by NBC's Tom Brokaw. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: It was clear from the very first question from Allan Shaffer what voters in the audience wanted to hear - specific solutions to help their families get through the economic crisis.

ALLAN SHAFFER: With the economy on the downturn and retired and older citizens and workers losing their incomes, what's the fastest, most positive solution to bail these people out of the economic ruin?

LIASSON: Barack Obama blamed the Bush administration and John McCain for pushing deregulation, and he said the first step was the rescue package for Wall Street that Congress passed last week.

BARACK OBAMA: The middle-class need a rescue package. And that means tax cuts for the middle-class. It means help for homeowners so that they can stay in their homes. It means that we are helping state and local governments set up road projects and bridge projects that keep people in their jobs. And then long-term, we've got to fix our health care system, we've got to fix our energy system that is putting such an enormous burden on families. You need somebody working for you and you've got to have somebody in Washington who is thinking about the middle class and not just those who can afford to hire lobbyists.

LIASSON: Senator McCain had a brand new policy proposal that he unveiled on the spot, saying the problem had become so severe that something had to be done to stabilize home values.

JOHN MCCAIN: You know that home values of retirees continues to decline and people are no longer able to afford their mortgage payments. As President of the United States, Allan, I would order the Secretary of the Treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes - at the diminished value of those homes and let people make those - be able to make those payments and stay in their homes. Is it expensive? Yes.

LIASSON: Both Obama and McCain had promised to take off the gloves, but the back and forth last night was not nearly as harsh as the candidates' rhetoric on the campaign trail or in their ads. It's hard to be aggressive and personal when you're standing right next to your opponent answering questions from voters. Still, they managed to clash repeatedly over taxes even when the questions were about something else.

MCCAIN: You know, nailing down Senator Obama's various tax proposals is like nailing Jell-O to the wall. There has been five or six of them and if you wait long enough, there will probably be another one. But he wants to raise taxes. My friends, the last president to raise taxes during tough economic times was Herbert Hoover.

LIASSON: And McCain accused Obama of wanting to raise taxes on small businesses.

MCCAIN: Small businesses across America will have to cut jobs and will have their taxes increase and won't be able to hire because of Senator Obama's tax policies. You know, he said some time ago, he said, he would forgo his tax increases if the economy was bad. I've got some news, Senator Obama, the news is bad. So let's not raise anybody's taxes, my friends.

OBAMA: Senator McCain, I think the 'Straight Talk Express' lost a wheel on that one.

LIASSON: Obama shot back that McCain wanted to give a hundred billion dollars in tax cuts to CEOs on Wall Street.

OBAMA: I want to provide a tax cut for 95 percent of Americans. 95 percent. If you make less than a quarter million dollars a year, you will not see a single dime of your taxes go up. If you make $200,000 a year or less, your taxes will go down. Now, Senator McCain talks about small businesses. Only a few percent of small businesses make more than $250,000 a year. So the vast majority of small businesses would get a tax cut under my plan.

LIASSON: McCain's poll numbers have been dropping ever since the economic crisis began. The Democrats' traditional advantage on the economy has given Obama a boost, nationally and in key battleground states. So, McCain came to this debate with the heavier burden. His goal was to raise doubts about Obama's ability to lead. He found an opportunity when Phil Elliot asked a question about foreign policy.

PHIL ELLIOT: Senator McCain, how will all the recent economic stress affect our nation's ability to act as a peacemaker in the world?

MCCAIN: That question has - can only be answered with someone with the knowledge and experience and the judgment, the judgment to know when our national security is not only at risk, but where the United States of America can make a difference in preventing genocide, in preventing the spread of terrorism, in doing the things that the United States has done, not always well, but we've done because we're a nation of good.

LIASSON: And McCain compared his record on Lebanon, Bosnia and Iraq to Obama's.

MCCAIN: Senator Obama was wrong about Iraq and the surge. He was wrong about Russia when they committed aggression against Georgia. And in his short career, he does not understand our national security challenges. We don't have time for on-the-job training, my friend.

TOM BROKAW: Senator Obama, the economic constraints on US military action around the world.

OBAMA: Well, you know, 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. 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-Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us. That was Sen. McCain's judgment and it was the wrong judgment. When Senator McCain was cheerleading the president to go into Iraq, he suggested it was going to be quick and easy, we'd be greeted as liberators. That was the wrong judgment, and it's been costly to us.

LIASSON: In his closing statement, Obama relied on the classic question of a challenger. Are you better off now than you were eight years ago? And he answered it.

OBAMA: Wages and incomes have gone down. People have lost their health care or are going bankrupt because they get sick. We've got young people who have got the grades and the will and the drive to go to college, but they just don't have the money. And we can't expect that if we do the same things that we've been doing over the last eight years, that somehow we are going to have a different outcome. We need fundamental change. That's what's at stake in this election. That's the reason I decided to run for president, and I'm hopeful that all of you are prepared to continue this extraordinary journey that we call America. But we're going to have to have the courage and the sacrifice, the nerve, to move in a new direction.

LIASSON: Obama has been riding a wave of anger at Washington and fear about the economy. McCain has been fighting that same tide as it grew stronger and stronger all year. Last night, he had the last word and he offered himself and his record as the answer.

MCCAIN: I know what it's like in dark times. I know what it's like to have to fight to keep one's hope going through difficult times. I know what it's like to rely on others for support and courage and love in tough times. I know what it's like to have your comrades reach out to you and your neighbors and your fellow citizens and pick you up and put you back in the fight. That's what America's all about. I believe in this country. I believe in its future. I believe in its greatness. It's been my great honor to serve it for many, many years. And I'm asking the American people to give me another opportunity.

LIASSON: It's unlikely that last night's encounter will change the dynamic of the race, but there's still one debate left, next Wednesday night in Hempstead, New York at Hofstra University. The topic will be domestic and economic policy. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Nashville, Tennessee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.