OXFORD, Mississippi -- In the first public meeting between Barack Obama and John McCain, the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees demonstrated clear contrasts, both in style and in policy. And though both campaigns sought to reduce expectations heading into tonight, each candidate had strong moments both to build their own case and tear down their opponent's. In the end, Barack Obama made a good case for himself, laying out positions on future government investments and priorities in foreign policy. But John McCain made the better case against Obama, repeatedly questioning whether the Illinois senator had the judgment to lead. In a moment of both economic and foreign uncertainty, both tactics are smart politics. It was a debate with two clear halves, with Obama jumping out to a lead and McCain fighting, and eventually succeeding in the end, to catch up. Too, given each candidate's focus and approach, one might draw comparisons with Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
Ostensibly focused on foreign policy, the debate kicked off with moderator Jim Lehrer probing the candidates' positions on the economic bailout proposal working its way through Congressional negotiations. Both candidates framed the economic crisis as a challenge to the average American.
"I can't think of a more important time to talk about the future of our country," Obama said.
"Have no doubt about the magnitude of this crisis. We're not talking about failures of institutions on Wall Street, we're talking about failures on Main Street," McCain added.
For all the pressure Lehrer put on both candidates to expand upon their own proposals for recovery, neither was forthcoming. As polls show more Americans objecting to the framework of the bailout, neither voiced specific support or their own proposals, highlighting the thorny issue it has become.
But Obama, who focused more on specific policy proposals than McCain, took control, focusing on a range of issues from health care to education policy, from energy independence to tax reductions. McCain stuck largely to his case that spending needs to be controlled, going as far as to advocate a spending freeze on all but a few key areas of government.
The debate's second half, returning to foreign policy, largely featured a resurgent McCain, energized and passionate about his strongest suit. While the two candidates, faced with one of the most open formats of any debate in recent memory, seemed reluctant at first to confront each other directly until the subject turned to Iran.
That skirmish, the most heated of the night, involved McCain's assertion that Obama would sit down with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. McCain landed one of the biggest punches of the night by saying Obama's decision to down with Ahmadinejad without preconditions "isn't just naive. It's dangerous."
It is the foreign arena in which McCain finds his experience draws the best contrasts with Obama, and he did not hesitate to point out the distinction. "I honestly don't believe that Senator Obama has the judgment or the experience," McCain said. "I don't think I need any on-the-job training. I'm ready to go at it right now."
Obama focused many of his arguments on the war in Iraq, tying the venture into domestic policy. "If we're going to be strong at home as well as strong abroad, we're going to have to bring [the war in Iraq] to a close," he said. "We have to use our military wisely. And we did not use our military wisely in Iraq."
Whether the decision voters will make is one about the past or the future is a key contrast between the candidates. On the economy, McCain prefers to focus almost exclusively on his record on cutting spending, while Obama focuses on future challenges like fixing health care and education.
On Iraq, the roles are reversed. McCain wants voters looking ahead toward winning the war thanks to his prescience on backing the surge. Obama prefers to focus on the justification and wisdom of going to war to begin with.
In general, McCain relies on his record, while Obama relies on his proposals. As Republicans paint Obama as a candidate without experience, the Democrat is the candidate who offered the more specific plans. Obama's campaign has had to deal with questions about a lack of substance behind larger messages of hope and change; McCain's may face similar questions soon.
The types of president each candidate would be showed through, largely based on recent models. McCain's emphasis of a muscular foreign policy and a small government at home echoes his idol, Ronald Reagan. Obama's focus on smarter government and his attempts to connect with everyday Americans strikes much more of a Bill Clinton tone.
Both Reagan and Clinton won two elections, but their styles have not faced each other. Obama benefits by feeling voters' economic pain, while McCain's focus on earmarks and runaway spending might not resonate beyond the GOP base. McCain's knowledge of the world, exemplified by a brief history of former Soviet states he rattled off, could calm voters nervous about a dangerous world.
If minds are made up based on tonight's debate, voter priorities seem to favor Obama. But McCain's most important accomplishment, sewing doubt about Obama's readiness to lead, could reap rewards in the two remaining meetings between the nominees.