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Obama, McCain Debate on Foreign Policy

Aired September 26, 2008 - 22:30   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So there it is. He gives a kiss to his wife, another kiss there to his wife. Both of these candidates answering questions for more than the 90 minutes, a little bit more than the 90 minutes that had been scheduled.
The first half actually really didn't get into foreign policy. It was all on the economic crisis facing the United States right now. That proposed bailout of Wall Street, a rescue plan of Main Street, as President Bush likes to call it, both of them expressing their views. And then only then did they get to the war in Iraq, relations with Iran, what's going on with Russia.

It was spirited at times.

One thing we're going to do -- Anderson Cooper is with us, that we're going to do over the course of the next 90 minutes is fact-check some of what both of these candidates were saying, because they disagreed on a lot of substance. And we're going to find out what exactly was true; what exactly wasn't so true.

COOPER: We have a number of analysts who has been watching the debates with us, political analysts as well as reporters. We've also, as Wolf talked about, have those focus groups which have been watching. You saw their reactions in real time at the bottom of your screen. We'll talk to some of those members to see how they were influenced tonight.

Welcome to this post-debate version of 360, AC360. We'll be continuing all the way through to the midnight hour. A lot to talk about in the hour and a half ahead. Really, the first 40 minutes of this debate solely focused on economic issues.

BLITZER: Yes, and you heard Jim Lehrer, the moderator, trying to get both of them to pinpoint would vote yay or nay, in favor of this proposed bailout. Didn't necessarily get a complete answer from either of the candidates, although they did lay out their positions.

I seemed to get the sense that both of them in the end would vote in favor of what was going on. But that was an important part. Then they got to the foreign policy.

COOPER: Let's talk to some of our analysts, see what their impressions were? Gloria Borger, what do you make of it? This was the debate that almost wasn't. How did it rate?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think that this was a real challenge for Barack Obama to kind of go toe-to-toe with John McCain on foreign policy. I think he had some trouble on the surge answer because, of course, that's been -- that's been an issue for him.

But I think, if John McCain is supposed to be head and shoulders above Barack Obama on defense and foreign policy, I think you'd have to watch this debate, Anderson, and say that Obama held his own. He didn't give an inch to McCain on the issues of talking with Iran.

COOPER: Could the same -- John King, could the same thing be said about John McCain on the economic issues? That he held his own?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They both held their positions. If you followed this campaign from the beginning, they both pretty much said in this debate what they say on this campaign trail. Yes, this was a reintroduction to the American people, in some ways. I think it will be very helpful for people who aren't paying as close attention to the campaign as we are.

But they were both arguing their positions quite assertively, whether it was the surge, whether it was what to do in Afghanistan, whether it was how to treat Vladimir Putin and the Russians and other global issues and the economic issues. They both hold -- held their own, in the sense of, if you watched the dial groups, when John McCain was talking about keeping taxes low, the government out of your way, the red line went up. The Republicans loved him.

Barack Obama said, you know, Washington has to get a little too much involved here. We have too much deregulation. The Democrat line went up.

They defended their philosophies. The question is, how did it play with that group in the middle, the soft Democrats, the independent voters who haven't made up their minds, in my travels, when you ask them what to do in Iraq and Afghanistan, they really don't know.

COOPER: David Gergen?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I thought that when it began, that John McCain was very subdued, seemed a little vague about the economic side, wasn't quite focused in. And then when it did turn to foreign policy, he got steadily better.

And he clearly has a superior understanding. He's traveled the world. He knows these people personally. He's been, you know, to Afghanistan and he's been to Pakistan in ways that Obama has not. So I thought that, on the foreign policy answers, he was much more in command of himself.

Obama, I thought got the best start in any debate I've seen him in. He was very crisp. He had a one, two, three, four. He was ready to go. And...

COOPER: He went through about five points of what he would do -- or what the bailout plan needed to do. GERGEN: On the bailout plan and periodically, he would return to a three- or four-point plan. And I thought he had some themes that he ran -- that he wove through the whole debate, about bringing it back to the domestic, talking about people, you know, who -- with their health-care problems and talking about their economic issues.

And I agree with Gloria on this, that I thought he held his own. He demonstrated a knowledge. He doesn't have the superior, you know, experience McCain has. But he demonstrated a knowledge tonight that I think would help give people more confidence. I would have a hard time saying one person won this, clearly. I think it was a much closer call.

BORGER: Isn't that the problem, though, Anderson? I mean, if nobody knocked it out of the park or if there wasn't a moment in this debate -- we looked -- we talked earlier about past debates where there was a defining moment. And one person clearly came out ahead.

If that didn't happen, don't we have to look at who had the most at stake going into this, which I think is John McCain? And you base that on nothing more than the polling and did he need to hit it out of the park in order to gain some momentum, going forward?

COOPER: We're going to talk about that. I do need to toss it over to Wolf, though, just to get the take of some of the partisans in this battle -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I want to get right to some of those partisans, as you say, Anderson. Bill Bennett was watching, the conservative radio talk show host. What did you think, Bill?

BILL BENNETT, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, I think early rounds, I think it was even, maybe slight edge to Obama. Later rounds, I agree with David, McCain got much stronger.

BLITZER: Because of why?

BENNETT: I think the expertise.

And something else: the firmness, very firm, very strong. There were two different people there tonight, very clearly. How many times did Barack Obama say, "John is right, John is right, Senator McCain is right"? And how many times did McCain say, "Obama is wrong. Senator Obama is wrong"?

It seems Obama is an intellectually generous guy. He wants to find common ground. He always seems to be looking for common ground. But McCain is the sheriff. He had shoot in the eye. And I think he wins on points because -- because in politics, it seems to me you're on offense or you're on defense. And McCain was on offense, and Obama spent too much of the night on defense.

BLITZER: One of the things we're going to do now over the course of the next hour plus is go through some of their disagreements -- you're right, you're wrong -- and look at the record, roll those sound bites to see who was right and who was wrong. And that's going to be coming up. And just to keep both of these presidential candidates honest, that's part of our responsibility.

BENNETT: I think some of the stuff on foreign policy, again, as he got better and better, McCain was really masterful, really just very impressive, not just the appeal to his experience, but citing the places he'd been and knowing the names and so on.

BLITZER: All right. Stand by, everybody. Donna is going to weigh in, Alex, Paul. Everybody is going to have a chance. We've got the best political team on television. They've got their own scorecards, who scored when and why. Also, our fact check. has got a lot of other useful information we're going through right now. We're only just beginning our coverage of this, the first presidential debate, an historic night here in the United States.

We'll be right back.


BLITZER: Welcome back to the CNN ELECTION CENTER. We're watching the reaction now to what happened at Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, the first presidential debate.

It was 90 minutes. Half of it was on domestic economic issues, especially the economic crisis; the other half on foreign policy.

Paul Begala, it was all supposed to be on foreign policy, but it's understandable, Jim Lehrer allowed it to focus in on issue No. 1 for American voters: what's happening with the economy.

PAUL BEGALA, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Neither of them seemed to act like there's an economic crisis on. I was astonished. It seems like the economic debate was -- it could have been frozen in time from two or three months ago. McCain, you know, yapping about earmarks and Obama yapping about his programs to cut taxes. I mean, there's a crisis on and neither of them is able to deal with it in the debate, because they don't know what they're going to do about it.

I will say this: if you step back, McCain's frame for the election is, I think, strength versus a risky choice. He closed on it; he closed strong on that.

Obama's frame is future versus the past. Now, was there any moment where Obama looked risky to help McCain? I didn't think so. Were there moments where McCain looked like he was stuck in the past? Yes, I thought there were a few times when he looks like he was yesterday's man. And so from that sense, I think, you know, if I'm an Obama strategist, I feel like my frame came through a little more clearly than theirs.

BLITZER: No major blunders, though. Do you think there were any major blunders, Alex Castellanos?

ALEX CASTELLANOS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No, not at all. And how lucky is John McCain after the worst week in economics the Republicans have ever had, to have a debate on foreign policy. You know, somebody's looking out for him.

The old fighter pilot, I thought, hit the target. He demonstrated great command, names, places. Name dropping is not a bad thing in a foreign policy like this sometime.

And he even got under Barack Obama's skin. It was Mr. Cool, Barack Obama, who looked a little, at times, a little petulant, a little -- John McCain was actually irritating him.

So I thought on those points -- John McCain could have lost this race tonight. The way this race has been going this past week, he could have gotten knocked out of this race easily with a bad debate tonight. He did -- I'd say the tie this -- a tie is a good thing for the guy who was behind, and that was McCain.

BLITZER: You're talking about name dropping. John McCain was dropping some names. At one point he did stumble on the new president of Pakistan. I happened to have interviewed Asif Ali Zardari earlier today here in New York. And John McCain, when he referred to the new president of Pakistan, called him Kadari. I don't know where he got that name.

So that was a stumble. It's a difficult name for Americans to remember and to pronounce. But you wouldn't think that John McCain, necessarily, would slip up on that.

CASTELLANOS: He got most of the vowels and consonants right, though. A little complicated. I deal with Castellanos. I know that's hard.

But Obama, I thought, did -- helped himself, as well, tonight, though. He not only, I think, put this into content of the future versus the past. But he had to pass the comfort test: can you see this guy in the big chair as president of the United States.

And I think Republicans are going to say, no, Democrats are going to say, yes, but a lot of independents, I think, are going to look at that guy and say, you know what? He was -- he had stature. He stood on the stage with John McCain. And I think this race just got tougher to make a choice and not easier.

BEGALA: One way to force a moment in these and that is to directly address your opponent. That only happened once tonight when Barack turned to John and said, "John, you said we would be greeted as liberators in Iraq. You were wrong. You said" -- and he went through. And that -- he thrashed John McCain on Iraq. Who would have thought that would happen? So I thought that's where Barack showed strength, which he needed. And I think that's where he won the debate.

BLITZER: I'm going to have Donna Brazile weigh in, in a moment. Leslie Sanchez is here, as well. Both of you stand by.

Anderson, I want you to pick up the conversation right now, because there's a lot to digest.

COOPER: There certainly is.

Jeff Toobin, you wanted to get in a point right before we go away.

JEFF TOOBIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I just thought this was a wonderful window into the temperament of the two characters. There was not a defining moment, but I think there were defining phrases.

The defining phrase for John McCain was, "You don't understand."

COOPER: That was the phrase he constantly used about Obama.

TOOBIN: Maybe viewers see that as they're right, that Obama doesn't understand. Or maybe they see them as a patronizing old man who is trying to talk down to someone who knows more than he does. I don't how that will play.

The other defining phrase was, "John is right, John is right." He kept saying, "John is right." Now, maybe that's a stupid thing to say in a debate where you're trying to define differences. Or maybe it's a statement of a politician who knows how to get along across party lines.

COOPER: That was Bill Bennett's point, that perhaps it's a way of sort of trying to figure out some bipartisan way, which is actually what John McCain was trying to claim the mantle of he's the guy who's working across lines.

TOOBIN: I was watching the line. Not much on the. But our line, mostly, it looked like a dead person. The line did not move.

COOPER: You're talking about the focus group line?

TOOBIN: The focus group line. There were not high highs and low lows. But all sorts of attack, the independents went down. The independents didn't like attacks, and I think they did like the statements of bipartisanship.

BORGER: You know, I think Obama attacked McCain on policy, tying him to Bush on the economy.

But McCain very often -- and this is when I think the lines went down, Jeffrey, seemed condescending to Obama, seemed like he was lecturing Obama about foreign policy when he said, "You don't understand." And I would see the lines of those independent voters trend downward at that time.

GERGEN: I just want to come back to what Campbell said earlier and disagree with Alex. And that is I think John McCain needed a clear victory tonight. I think a tie was not in his interests. He is behind. And this was his -- this is his best subject night. Because the last night, they're going to be talking about the economy.

So I think he needed a clear victory tonight. I think that eluded him, even as strong as he was. And I think Bill Bennett was absolutely right, he got steadily stronger. On many occasions was very, very good. But I don't think he walked out here tonight with a big clear victory of the kind that he needed.

COOPER: When we come back, we're going to do a fact check on some of the things that were said. We'll talk to Christiane and Michael Ware, as well, about some of the international issues. Our coverage continues here in this post-debate version of 360. We'll be right back.


COOPER: Welcome back to the CNN ELECTION CENTER. We're getting reaction to this first presidential debate here in the United States. I want go to Ole Miss right now. CNN's Dana Bash is at Oxford, Mississippi.

You've got a guest over there. I want to point out, also, to our viewers, that we're standing by to speak live with Joe Biden, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. But tell us who you have there.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We are here in the spin room. And there's a lot of spinning going on. Right now, we have one of Senator McCain's senior advisors, Nicole Wallace.

Now I want to ask you first, Nicole, start with the question about the mantra we heard from Senator McCain tonight over and over, "Senator Obama doesn't understand. What Senator Obama doesn't understand." Clearly, that was rehearsed, and clearly that was a message you all were trying to get across.

NICOLE WALLACE, MCCAIN ADVISOR: We didn't have a lot of time to rehearse this week. As you know, we suspended our campaign to be in Washington and help address the national crisis facing our financial institutions.

But certainly, what was exposed tonight was this growing judgment gap, experience gap and readiness gap. And I'm not sure that it was laid bare quite as obviously as it was in the section when Jim Lehrer pushed both men tonight to answer, what would they do to solve this financial crisis in their first month as president. And Barack Obama really struggled. He finally came up with conceding that perhaps he'd delay spending on one component of his ten-year plan on energy.

John McCain decisively and boldly made clear that he'd consider a spending freeze, that other than paying for our veterans and our defense spending, and our entitlements, he would consider bold action.

BASH: One of the -- obviously, the points that Senator McCain was trying to get across was that Barack Obama doesn't have good judgment, not just experience but the judgment.


BASH: But one of the points that Obama seemed to sort of get in at Senator McCain was the idea that he had some errors in judgment with regard to the Iraq war, not just saying that it was OK to go in, but also with regards to saying the United States would be greeted as liberators and et cetera, that that seemed to sort of go at the heart of what Senator McCain was trying to do to Obama.

WALLACE: For a guy running on change, it's amazing that he's so stuck in the past.

I think that, with Barack Obama being, really, a once-in-a- generation political communicator, it was also revealed tonight, that even Barack Obama can't sell his bad ideas. Even Barack Obama can't stand there with all of his eloquence and sell ideas that are not in the mainstream of the American political discussion and debate about our major issues.