NASHVILLE, October 8 – John McCain and Barack Obama clashed heatedly over the financial crisis, Iraq and Pakistan Tuesday, but strove to empathize with voters’ economic fears in their second presidential debate.,
Republican McCain was under intense pressure to throw his sliding campaign a lifeline, as he trails Democrat Obama by widening margins in national polls and in battleground states with time running out before the November 4 election.
After days of intensely nasty campaign trail rhetoric, the two senators strolled onto the stage in Nashville, Tennesse, smiling broadly, and shook hands, both patting the other on the arm before their "town-hall" style debate.
But the tension was boiling just below the surface, as both senators laced their answers with attacks on each other’s proposals and records.
McCain, who was widely criticized for rarely looking at Obama during their first debate two weeks ago, may have let his dislike of his opponent emerge again in a point likely to be discussed exhaustively after their showdown.
The Arizona senator said he voted against an energy bill laden down with tax breaks for big oil firms. "You know who voted for it? That one" he said, in a sharp comment directed at Obama.
In another swipe, McCain hit Obama on taxes.
"Nailing down Senator Obama’s various tax proposals is like nailing jell-o to the wall," he said.
Obama repeatedly made a show of "correcting" McCain’s interpretation of his record and proposals, and hit his top talking point of tying the Republican to the unpopular economic legacy of President George W. Bush.
"I believe this is a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the past eight years promoted by President Bush and supported by John McCain," Obama said.
The temperatures rose again when the debate veered into national security, as Obama rebuked McCain for saying he wanted to attack Pakistan, over his vow to hit Al-Qaeda targets, in the country if Islamabad would not.
McCain cited the maxim that the United States should "talk softly, but carry a big stick," and slammed his rival who he said "likes to talk aloud."
"He has announced that he will attack Pakistan," McCain said.
Obama hit straight back, citing a YouTube video from last year taken on the campaign trail which showed a McCain joke misfiring when he sang "bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of an old Beach Boys hit.
"Senator McCain suggests that somehow, you know, I’m green behind the ears and I’m just spouting off and he’s somber and responsible," Obama said.
"This is a guy who sang, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran, who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don’t think is an example of speaking softly."
Obama also tried to turn McCain’s claims that he lacks experience back against the Arizona senator.
"I don’t understand how we ended up invading the country that had nothing to do with 9/11," Obama said, refering to Iraq and the September 11 attacks in 2001.
McCain laid out a plan to buy up bad mortgages in the United States and renegotiate loans at diminished values to ensure people caught in the foreclosure crunch could keep their homes.
"Is it expensive? Yes. But we all know, my friends, until we stabilize home values in America, we’re never going to start turning around and creating jobs and fixing our economy," he said.
Both candidates made clear efforts to speak to their audience directly, crossing the red-carpeted stage at Belmont University to stand a few feet away from the questioner, holding hand-held microphones.
"I understand your frustration and your cynicism," Obama said, like McCain looking in the eye individuals in the group of undecided voters posing the questions, and by extension addressing Americans in their homes.
Gallup’s daily tracking poll Tuesday reflected the high stakes for McCain, giving Obama a nine point lead nationally, while the Democratic nominee is also widening his edge in key battleground states.
The McCain campaign, sensing the fast-running electoral clock, made a strategic turn in the run-up to the debate, sharply attacking Obama’s character and suggesting he did not share basic American values.
New polls showed Obama with a clear lead over his rival, with the Gallup survey pushing him to a lead of 51 percent to 42 and a CNN poll putting the Illinois senator on a 53 percent lead over 45 percent for McCain.
But a CBS poll suggested that the race has tightened from a nine-point Obama lead to a four-point gap since last week’s vice presidential debate between Palin and Senator Joseph Biden.