6 p.m.: Wolf Blitzer isn't using hyperbole when he says "this is a moment the whole country has been waiting for." Every debate can be cast as make or break, but it is hard to think of another that has been held against the backdrop of such a crisis as the one in Washington right now.
6:04: One of the big differences from previous debates: direct exchanges between the candidates are permitted at certain points.
6:11: It is McCain, not Obama, who noted that Sen. Kennedy was hospitalized today. Kennedy is a big supporter of Obama.
6:13: Neither candidate has directly answered whether they support the bailout plan. But Obama is trying to come out a bit feistier in casting the crisis as the product of Republican dereuglation, and doing his best to connect McCain to it. McCain, however, is citing a lack of accountability, even citing an anecdote about Dwight Eisenhower. Moderator Jim Lehrer cited Ike in his opening question, where he quoted Eisenhower's warning that security means solvency.
6:16: The age issue: McCain is using humor to perhaps diffuse it. When Lehrer instructs Obama to speak directly to McCain, McCain quips, "You afraid I couldn't hear him?" These types of quips carried the day for Reagan.
6:22: McCain hits Obama for requesting $932 million in "pork barrel spending," a pet issue of his campaign. Obama hits back on McCain's tax policies as following in the footsteps of George Bush. "It is not like you want to close the loopholes, you want to add an additional tax cut over the loopholes." It is interesting in that they are each trying to seize the nature of the argument, with no clear winner.
6:28: Lehrer asks what the candidates would give up given the cost of the bailout. Obama: "There is no doubt we are going to be able to do everything that needs to be done." He doesn't cite specifics, then goes into health care, energy and education as programs he wouldn't give up. McCain: "No matter what, we have got to cut spending," he says, then he dings Obama by saying he has the most liberal voting record. "It is hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left." But McCain does cite cost overruns in defense, but he is still not specific.
6:33: Lehrer states the obvious: Neither candidate offers cuts anywhere near enough to account for the bailout.
McCain offers a spending freeze on everything but defense and some veterans entitlements. Obama objects, then states what is surely obvious: Getting out of Iraq. It is somewhat surprising that he didn't mention this earlier.
6:38: McCain suggests Obama cut some of his new spending programs, and warns his health care program will hand decisions over to the government. It's a little ironic, given that the bailout essentially hands the government the mortgage business, the housing market and much of Wall Street. (OK, a little hyperbole).
6:40: "It is well known I will not be named Miss Congeniality" in opposing Bush and other Republicans, McCain says. It is the second time he has referenced the 2000 movie, starring Sarah Palin lookalike Sandra Bullock.
6:43: With a question on Iraq, the debate has transitioned into foreign policy, its original intent. Other than broad strokes, neither candidate has paved the way through the financial crisis.
6:45: McCain attacks Obama on not holding a Senate subcommittee on NATO --- echoing a Clinton argument during the primary season. Obama challenges the point and calls it "inside baseball," then tries to widen the question of the surge to the question of the entire decision to go to war.
6:48: "Senator Obama refuses to recognize that we are winning in Iraq." McCain hits Obama on cutting off the funds for the troops and not supporting the surge, which is one of Obama's big vulnerabilities. He cites, several times, Obama's quote that the surge succeeded "beyond its wildest expectations."
"We had a difference on the timetable, not on whether we were funding troops," Obama fights back. Clearly, Obama is trying to avoid any nuance answer similar to Kerry's "supported the war before I was against it." His strategy appears to be to focus on Afghanistan, not the surge in Iraq. "We have four times more troops in Iraq than in Afghanistan. That is a strategic mistake."
7:00: McCain cites the wearing of the bracelet of an Iraq vet killed in combat, Matthew Stanley, hwich his mother gave him while pleading that "he did not die in vain." "We will win this one and we won't come home from dishonor." It is a great anecdote, one that I have heard him make several times.
7:02: Obama comes back. "I have got a bracelet too." "No soldier ever dies in vain." He tries to equalize on the support of troops. It is a good comeback, even if he struggled for a second to remember the soldiier's name. He hits McCain on Afghanistan, again tying it to Iraq.
7:06: Iran. McCain: "I believe we can act and I believe we can act with our friends and allies." McCain outlines the threat, and cites the dangers to Israel, but he seems intent on imposing sanctions rather than suggesting military action.
Obama: "I believe that the Republican Guard in Iran is a terrorist organization. I have consistently said so."
This came up during the primary debates, when Hillary Clinton was criticized for voting for a resolution declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Obama did not vote, but said that he would have voted against it.
McCain struggles with the name "Ahmadinejad" and hits Obama for suggesting meeting with the Iranian president without preconditions, but Obama points that even Henry Kissinger advocates his position.
It's interesting that this is a debate that started last summer, when Hillary Clinton criticized Obama for being naive. Some saw it as an Obama gaffe but he has not backed away from it.
7:19: McCain gets animated in mocking Obama's willingness to meet with Ahmadinejad. It's so far the most animated either candidate has been throughout the evening. This is probably a moment that will be replayed over and over again. The one drawback: McCain has a habit of popping up from the podium, as if leaping from his feet, anxious to get his point across.
7:21: McCain just comes out and characterizes Obama as "naive." McCain tries to accent his leadership on the Russian-Georgian conflict.
7:27: Obama tries to go on offense, pointing to McCain's voting against alternative energy proposals. McCain cites his support of offshore drilling as a "bridge" to alternative energy. But he unfortunately uses the phrase "exploiting these resources" in his defense, which doesn't sound all that good.
7:29: Safer today than on 9/11? "I think America is safer today than it was on 9/11," McCain says. Obama: "We still have a long way to go." He cites nuclear proliferation, one of his signature issues, and the threat of Al Queda. He gives a nod to McCain on the torture issue, and tries to cast it in terms of restoring America's standing in the world.
McCain again tries to bring it back to Iraq and Obama's idea of withdrawal as devastatiing. It's interesting that Obama is not emphasising the point he has made before that he would consult with generals in getting out of Iraq, which gives him some wiggle room.
7:34: Amazingly, McCain is trying to connect Obama's inability to acknowledge the surge's success in this debate --- "inflexiblity" --- to that of President Bush. And he drives home Obama's lack of experience. "I don't think I need any one the job training. I am ready to go at it right now."
7:39: McCain ends with his first reference to his experience as a POW in Vietnam.
"Good job, John," Obama says in shaking McCain's hand.