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Analysis: A few jabs, but no knockout in first debate

  • Story Highlights
  • Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain square off, with no clear winner
  • Both candidates discuss nation's economic woes before delving into foreign policy
  • McCain tries to label Obama as inexperienced; Obama tries to tie McCain to Bush
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By Mark Preston
CNN Political Editor
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OXFORD, Mississippi (CNN) -- Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama landed some punches Friday night, but neither delivered a knockout blow in the first presidential debate featuring the two party nominees.

Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain discussed foreign policy and the U.S. economy in Friday's debate.

Heading into the debate, McCain was supposed to have the edge, given that the event was originally focused solely on foreign policy and national security. However, the economic emergency that has struck the nation and the world forced an 11th-hour format tweak to allow the candidates to address the issue.

The first 40 minutes of the debate was on the economy, with moderator Jim Lehrer offering both candidates a stage to elaborate on how they would address the urgent situation.

The financial crisis almost put the debate in jeopardy when McCain vowed not to attend unless the emergency was resolved. He decided earlier Friday that enough progress had been made, so he went to Oxford.

Still, when given the opportunity, neither candidate offered specifics on the subject as both stuck to their talking points. But Obama seemed more comfortable on this topic than McCain, and it showed. Video Watch Obama, McCain discuss the economy »

Polling shows that voters have more confidence in Obama than McCain when it comes to the economy. McCain, though, warmed up as the discussion turned to his turf: foreign policy.

When it comes to terrorism and Iraq, voters prefer McCain over Obama. Although McCain successfully pointed out that he clearly has more experience on foreign policy issues, Obama did hold his own.

As expected, Democrats declared victory, noting that Obama did not fold when the topic turned to foreign policy. Republicans claimed a win, saying that when people head to the polls November 4, they are voting for a commander in chief with experience.

By and large, Friday night's showdown was probably a draw, elevating expectations for their next meeting October 7 in Nashville, Tennessee, when they take questions from an audience. Full coverage of the debates

The timing of the debate -- in the middle of negotiations for the $700 billion economic bailout package -- added to the tense atmosphere that was heightened by the aversion McCain and Obama have for each other.

McCain continued to try to paint Obama as inexperienced and unable to hit the ground running on day one if elected president. In turn, Obama sought to tie McCain to the Bush administration.

One of the sharper exchanges of the night came over the issue of Iraq and, in particular, McCain's direct criticism that Obama did not support the surge of U.S. troops into the country. It prompted Obama to fire back that the war in Iraq did not begin last year but in 2003. Photo See scenes from the debate »

The candidates also sparred over meeting with leaders of hostile nations as well as how the United States should deal with Russia.

In all, it was a civil debate but laced with acrimony. The two senators may be collegial, but they are clearly not friendly. Watch debate: Video Part 1 » | Video Part 2 » | Video Part 3 »


With 39 days and three more debates to go, voters have ample opportunity to decide whom they want to succeed President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in the White House.

Vice presidential nominees Sarah Palin and Joe Biden will square off Thursday night at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

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