Oxford (Mississippi, US), Sept.27 : Departing from a pre-arranged pact that they would engage in a debate on foreign policy, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain on Friday engaged in a verbal duel on the ongoing Wall Street meltdown.
While McCain accused Obama of being an extreme liberal on spending, Obama countered by describing his Republican opponent as a protege of President George W Bush in their first of three presidential debates.
The debate, which was held on the University of Mississippi campus, saw both candidates accusing each other of being fiscally reckless, in a bid to convince voters of their own ability to handle the current economic crisis.
Moderator Jim Lehrer kept the candidates on the economy for the first 40 minutes.
"Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate. It's hard to reach across the aisle from that far left," McCain said, casting himself as the scourge of pork-barrel spenders and accusing Obama of heedlessly requesting nearly one billion dollars in earmarks in his first Senate term.
Obama said: "You voted for almost all of (Bush's) budgets. To stand here after almost eight years and say you're gonna lead on controlling spending ... I think is just kind of hard to swallow."
As the debate moved back into foreign policy terrain, the candidates traded sharp barbs over the Iraq war and how to handle nations like Pakistan.
McCain charged that Obama had been wrong not to support the introduction of 30,000 additional troops last year, a move that significantly tamped down violence.
"Senator Obama refuses to acknowledge we are winning in Iraq," he said, warning that U.S. forces would risk defeat in Iraq if the administration set the kind of withdrawal timeline that Obama advocates.
Obama acknowledged the situation had improved but said the Iraq war was distracting the U.S. military from going after terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, who was hiding along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
The Illinois senator focused on the original decision to go to war, and questioned McCain's judgment in supporting it.
"John, you like to pretend the war started in 2007 ... the war started in 2003." he said. "At the time when the war started you said it was gonna be quick and easy ... you were wrong."
In the opening moments of the debate, both candidates said they felt optimistic about the negotiations over financial bailout legislation on Capitol Hill.
The two rivals took the stage at the University of Mississippi after a week of wrangling over the rescue package, and a set of surprise maneuvers by McCain's campaign.
It was only late Friday morning that debate organizers found out for certain the prime-time match-up would be going forward.
McCain on Wednesday called for the debate to be delayed until lawmakers took action on the financial rescue package, but in an announcement shortly before noon Friday said he would travel to Oxford.
The debate was a chance for McCain to regain his footing, since foreign policy is considered his strong suit.