Stage set for White House rivals debate

October 7, 2008 12:00 am

, NASHVILLE, October 7 – Republican John McCain questioned Barack Obama’s character, while the Democrat pressed his foe’s alleged weakness on economic issues as tempers escalated ahead of the White House rivals’ debate Tuesday.

Both candidates intensified their attacks ahead of the second of three presidential debates, this one to be staged in a "town hall" format with less than a month remaining before the November 4 vote.

The debate was to feature questions from undecided voters in the audience, a format preferred by McCain who frequently paces the stage and engages directly with voters, in contrast to Obama whose style tends to be more reserved and contained.

As polls continued to show McCain sliding in the polls, the 72-year-old dug in his heels with repeated questions about Obama’s track record and a refrain by his running mate Sarah Palin that Obama was "palling around with terrorists."

"What has this man ever actually accomplished in government?" McCain asked supporters on Monday.

"What does he plan for America? In short, who is the real Barack Obama? But my friends, you ask such questions, and all you get in response is another angry barrage of insults."

Obama’s campaign countered that McCain was ignoring the world financial crisis and attempting to divert attention from shady economic dealings in his past, particularly a massive banking scandal more than 20 years ago involving the Arizona senator.

"If John McCain wants to have a character debate, then I’m happy to have that debate because Mr. McCain’s record, despite him calling himself a maverick, actually shows that he is continually somebody who relies on lobbyists for big oil and big corporations," Obama told CNN.

"One of the things we’ve done throughout this campaign, we don’t throw the first punch. But we’ll throw the last."

However, the voter-question format could divert from attempts to wage personal attacks at the debate, with the worsening financial crisis a top concern after stocks plunged despite President George W. Bush’s signing of a 700 billion dollar rescue package Friday.

Veteran NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw will serve as moderator, with some questions coming from the audience at Belmont University and others from Internet participants.

McCain and Obama, 47, will have two minutes to answer each question selected by Brokaw, followed by a five-minute discussion between them.

Meanwhile, polls showed Obama holding a lead over McCain for the 10th straight day, with a Gallup survey pushing him to an eight-point advantage, and a CNN poll showing the Illinois senator with a 53 percent lead over 45 percent for McCain.

The McCain campaign has aired a series of negative ads casting the Illinois senator as a raving liberal who would endanger the lives of US troops abroad and usher in a new era of interventionist, tax-raising government.

The former prisoner of war’s campaign has also hammered away at Obama’s ties to professor of education William Ayers, a bomb-throwing militant and part of the Weather Underground movement during the Vietnam War.

The New York Times concluded that the pair were not close, and Obama has condemned Ayer’s past militant activities.

Alaska Governor Palin, who is leading the charge, said the Democrat was consorting with an "unrepentant terrorist."

"I am just so fearful," she said at a rally on Monday, "that this is a man who does not see America as you and I see it, as the greatest force for good in the world."

The Republicans’ tactic drew a sharp rebuke from Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland, who accused them of engaging in "full-bore character assassination" and said McCain did not "even have the guts" to say it, but "hides himself behind his vice presidential candidate."

In response, Obama pointed to his opponent’s embroilment in a devastating 1980s financial scandal and rolled out a new broadcast and email onslaught recalling McCain’s connection to jailed tycoon Charles Keating, the collapse of whose savings and loan firm wiped out the savings of many elderly retirees.

McCain was part of a group of lawmakers known as the "Keating Five" that received gifts and favours from the businessman and intervened with regulators to insist his company was in good health before it collapsed.

McCain escaped with a formal censure by the Senate in 1991 but spoke of the searing embarrassment caused by the scandal and went on to become a crusader for ethics reform. Overall, the US government had to spend 124 billion dollars to bail out the entire savings and loan industry.


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