McCain: ‘New 9/11’ less likely now than after attacks
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Sen. John McCain said Friday that another attack on the scale of the September 11 hijackings is “much less likely” now than it was the day after the terrorist attacks.
“America is safer now than it was on 9/11,” he said, “But we have a long way to go before we can declare America safe.”
Sen. Barack Obama, his Democratic rival for the White House, agreed that the United States is “safer in some ways” but said the country needed to focus more on issues such as nuclear non-proliferation and restoring America’s image in the world.
Earlier, Obama called for a re-evaluation of the United States’ approach to Russia in light of the country’s recent military action in the Caucasus.
“You cannot be a 21st-century superpower and act like a 20th-century dictatorship,” he said at the first presidential debate of the election season.
McCain accused Obama of responding naively to Russia’s invasion of neighboring Georgia last month by calling on both sides to exercise restraint.
McCain said he would support the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in NATO.
He also said Iranian nuclear weapons would be an “existential threat to the state of Israel” and would encourage other countries in the Middle East to seek nuclear weapons as well.
“We cannot allow another Holocaust,” he said.
Obama agreed that the United States “cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran,” calling for tougher sanctions from a range of countries including Russia and China.
McCain called for a new “league of democracies” to stand firm against Iran.
He said the next president will have to decide when and how to leave Iraq and what the United States will leave behind.
The Republican candidate said that the war had been badly managed at the beginning but that the United States was now winning, thanks to a “great general and a strategy that succeeded.”
“Sen. Obama refuses to acknowledge that we are winning in Iraq,” McCain said.
Obama responded, “That’s not true; that’s not true.”
He blasted McCain as having been wrong about the war at the start, saying McCain had failed to anticipate the uprising against U.S. forces and violence between rival religious groups in the country.
“At the time when the war started, you said it was quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were,” Obama said, citing the key White House policy justifying the 2003 invasion.
“You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong,” he said.
Before moving into foreign policy, the candidates focused on the economy.
McCain said he would consider a spending freeze on everything but defense, veterans affairs and entitlement programs in order to cut back on government spending.
Obama disagreed, saying, “The problem is you’re using a hatchet where you need a scalpel.
“There are some programs that are very important that are currently underfunded,” Obama said.
He agreed that the government needs to cut spending in some areas, but he said other areas, such as early childhood education, need more funding.
McCain repeated his call to veto every bill with earmarks.
Obama said the country “absolutely” needs earmark reform but said, “the fact is, eliminating earmarks alone is not a recipe for how we are going to get the middle class back on track.”
McCain and Obama also tangled over who would cut taxes more. Watch Obama talk about his economic plan »
McCain said he would lower business taxes in order to encourage job growth in the United States, and Obama said he would cut taxes for 95 percent of American families. Watch McCain outline differences between him and Obama »
Obama also said that the United States was facing its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
McCain said he was encouraged that Republicans and Democrats were working together to solve the crisis.
The first 30 minutes of the debate focused on the economy, even though the debate was supposed to be centered on foreign policy. The economy has dominated the campaign trail for the past two weeks.
Obama refused to be pinned down on whether he would support a $700 billion plan proposed by President Bush’s top economic advisers, saying the final details of the proposal were not yet known.
McCain said he hoped to be able to vote for it.
Just hours ago, the fate of the debate was in limbo because it was unclear whether McCain would show up.
The Republican presidential candidate announced Wednesday that he was suspending his campaign to help forge legislation to save crippled U.S. financial markets.
McCain said he would not attend the debate unless Congress reached an agreement on the bailout package.
McCain said Friday that enough progress has been made for him to attend the debate, even though Congress has not made a deal.
In the final hours before the debate, McCain and Obama separately checked out the stage at the debate site on the University of Mississippi campus.
Outside the debate site, students and residents in Oxford said they were thrilled — and relieved — to find out that the debate was still on. The University of Mississippi said it invested $5.5 million in Friday night’s event.
There’s a lot on the line for both sides. The election is just weeks away, and polls show Obama and McCain in a tight race.
According to CNN’s average of national polls, Obama holds a 5-point lead over McCain, 48 percent to 43 percent. The 9 percent of respondents who are undecided could swing the election either way.
The candidates’ running mates are not in Mississippi to watch the debates.
Sen. Joe Biden, Obama’s VP pick, is watching the debate from his hotel room in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Biden told firefighters and their families at a fish fry in Cudahy, Wisconsin, on Friday that the debate is a “big deal” because it will illustrate a fundamental national security difference between the candidates.
“The fundamental difference between John and Barack and me and John is this: If you’re talking about security, it starts at home in addition to protecting our troops abroad and giving them everything they need.”
McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, is watching the debate from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she is preparing for her debate with Biden on October 2 with a cadre of domestic and foreign policy advisers.