Friday, September 26, 2008

Presidential debate touches on a few rural issues

A few issues of rural importance, such as ethanol and broadband, were mentioned in tonight's first presidential debate, between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, at the University of Mississippi.

Asked what priorities they would have to give up because of the expected bailout of the financial system, Obama said, "There are range of things that are probably going to have to be delayed," but "Some things have to be done," such as energy independence, "fix our health-care system ... make sure that we're competing in education; we've got to invest in science and technology ... make sure that college is affordable for every young person in America," and improve infrastructure -- not just roads and bridges, "but also broadband lines that reach into rural communities."

That was the only mnetion of "rural" in the 97-minute encounter. McCain continued to press his case for reductions in spending, and cited one of the higher-profile tax breaks in rural America. "First of all, I'd eliminate ethanol subsidies. I oppose ethanol subsidies." He also called for fixed-cost defense contracts and controlling cost overruns, which he said he has experience doing. He said he would "examine every agency of government [and] find out those who aren't doing their job and eliminate them."

Moderator Jim Lehrer, at right in photo taken after the debate, pressed Obama to say what he would drop or delay. "I want to make sure we are investing in energy," Obama said. "There may be individual components of it that we cant do, but John's right, that we've got to make some cuts," such as $15 billion in benefits for insurance companies that sell Medicare policies.

Later in the debate, McCain said he would also make energy a priority, including construction of nuclear power plants, which he said are "also important for climate change, an issue that I have been involved in for many, many years . . . along with Senator [Hillary] Clinton." That was an attempt to pick up supporters of Obama's main foe for the Democratic nomination. (Late in the debate, Obama said McCain voted against alternative energy 23 times. McCain replied, "Nobody in Arizona votes against solar" and said he supports alternative energy.)

Pressed again by Lehrer, McCain suggested a spending freeze on everything but defense, veterans' and entitlement programs." A bit later, he added "several other vital issues," unnamed, to that list. Obama said, "You're using a hatchet where you need a scalpel" to choose among programs such as early-chidlhood education, which he wants to increase, and Iraq spending, which he wants to cut by bringing troops home. That was the first mention of Iraq, 30 minutes into a debate that was supposed to be about foreign policy but was sidetracked by the greatest issue of the moment, the credit crisis.

On the bailout, Obama said the Republican philosophy has been "what's good for Wall Street, not for Main Street." McCain said, "Main Street is paying a penalty for the excesses and greed in Washington, D.C."

Asked the fundamental differences in the approach each of them would take, McCain said congressional earmarks, which Obama only recently foreswore, are "a gateway drug ... to out-of-control spending and corruption. . . . We spent $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana," and delivered his usual line wondering if the study involved a criminal issue or a paternity issue. "Scientists say it's key to preserving the species," Scientific American said in a story in February about the study. "The point of the project isn't really to analyze the bears' DNA, it's to use their DNA to take a census," says, which truth-checks candidates' statements and ads. A similar site is For debate fact-checking from The Washington Post, click here. The study found the bears are doing well.

UPDATE, Sept. 27: Obama, in Greensboro, N.C., today, picked up on the bear study: "He railed against some study of bears in Montana, but he had nothing to say about the fact that more and more Americans can’t afford to pay for college. . . . The truth is, through ninety minutes of debating, John McCain had a lot to say about me, but he had nothing to say about you." For more and a transcript, from Mark Halperin of Time, click here.

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