John McCain and Barack Obama punched and counter-punched on issue after issue throughout their second debate Tuesday night, but neither knocked the other down, much less out.
Obama loyalists will call McCain the aggressor for continuing a line of attack that the Republican nominee began Monday, after nearly a month trailing Obama in the polls.
McCain triggered the point-counterpoint Tuesday as he talked about Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the failed mortgage giants that the federal government rescued last month.
“But you know, they're the ones that, with the encouragement of Sen. Obama and his cronies and his friends in Washington, that went out and made all these risky loans, gave them to people that could never afford to pay back,” McCain charged.
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Then came this: “Sen. Obama was the second-highest recipient of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac money in history – in history.”
McCain had his don't-mess-with-me look, as if he were daring the Democratic nominee to fight back.
Obama was ready.
“Now, I've got to correct a little bit of Sen. McCain's history, not surprisingly. Let's, first of all, understand that the biggest problem in this whole process was the deregulation of the financial system.
“Sen. McCain, as recently as March, bragged about the fact that he is a deregulator.”
That exchange set the night's tone. Obama charged that McCain was eager to allow the nation's millionaires to continue enjoying the low income tax rates that the Bush administration pushed through Congress in 2001 and 2003.
McCain insisted that he wasn't cutting taxes for anyone, only allowing those rates, which are scheduled to expire on Jan. 1, 2011, to continue.
McCain probably was more in his element at this town hall debate. He's excelled at this format for years. His dozens of such meetings at New Hampshire high schools and fire stations vaulted him to national fame and a huge win in the first primaries of 2000 and 2008.
But Obama, criticized by some in the first debate for being too reserved and even stiff, also seemed comfortable in the format, and so the two candidates sparred relentlessly, with the sheen of two seasoned pros. Voices were never raised; facial expressions veered toward the impatient but never became snickers or sighs.
This was a classic political debate, a point-by-point road map for voters trying to decide which fork to follow.
McCain seemed tempted to display his legendary temper only once. Obama charged that McCain “voted 23 times against alternative fuels. Twenty-three times.”
McCain paused and gave the audience a knowing look. “It was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and (Vice President Dick) Cheney.
“You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one,” he said, pointing at Obama. “You know who voted against it?” McCain asked. “Me.”
The jabs resumed, and the debate ended with probably the starkest difference of all, over foreign policy.
“Sen. Obama was wrong about Iraq and the surge. He was wrong about Russia when they committed aggression against Georgia,” McCain said. “And in his short career, he does not understand our national security challenges.”
“Well, you know, Sen. McCain, in the last debate and today, again, suggested that I don't understand,” Obama replied. “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-Qaida 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.”
The viewer, once again, was left with little doubt who stood where.