The nation's first presidential debate of this campaign was to have been a victory lap of sorts for Republican John McCain, coming after his bold and risky decision to step off the trail to grapple with the nation's economic crisis in Washington.
His campaign hoped he would show up in Oxford, Miss., as the catalyst who helped broker the deal to resolve the meltdown in the nation's economy. But there was no deal, and the would-be mediator in chief was compelled to debate Democrat Barack Obama after vowing not to do so until the crisis was over.
As the two faced off at Ole Miss on Friday night, McCain found himself trying to re-energize his campaign. The Arizona Republican's White House bid was knocked off stride amid finger-pointing as House members from his own party bucked a deal to bail out the nation's financial marketplace.
Against the backdrop of the economic crisis, neither candidate scored significantly or caused much damage to the other. Instead, the debate proceeded in a very sober, workmanlike and largely cordial manner, with Obama even occasionally agreeing with his rival and saying such things as, "John is right." But the differences between the two were readily evident on issues ranging from federal spending to diplomacy with rogue nations.
Though McCain's stab at becoming the hero of the economic crisis blew up, some of the damage may have been mitigated by his solid debate performance, including his ability to sound a recurring theme that contrasted the Republican's long experience with Obama's relative lack of it.
He also jabbed repeatedly at Obama's requests for project funding for his home state of Illinois that the Republican said amounted to "nearly a million dollars a day for every day that he's been in the United States Senate."
"The first thing we have to do is get spending under control in Washington. It's completely out of control," said McCain, who has made his crusade against earmarks - pork-barrel projects inserted into federal spending bills - a frequent theme of his campaign.
While Obama has stopped seeking earmarks for his home state as a presidential contender, he also belittled McCain's sense of proportion in dealing with federal spending constraints. He noted the Republican was blasting earmarks that amounted to $18 billion in spending while pushing tax cuts that would provide $300 billion in savings to "some of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country."
The nation's potential economic meltdown provided Obama with an opening to go to one of his campaign's persistent themes - a link between unpopular President George W. Bush and the prospect of another four years of Republican control of the White House.
"We also have to recognize that this is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Sen. McCain, a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most, and somehow prosperity will trickle down," the Democrat said.
Both senators said they would vote for an economic bailout of financial firms that could total $700 billion or more.
When the debate shifted to its original theme of foreign policy, McCain attempted to paint Obama, a first-term senator, as naive, while the Republican portrayed himself as a statesman with a well-stamped passport.
In contrast, Obama said that his top foreign policy priority would be "to restore America's standing in the world," again blaming the current administration and contending that "we are less respected now than we were eight years ago, or even four years ago."
To further that goal, Obama defended the need to open high-level dialogue with the leaders of nations such as Iran, North Korea and Cuba that have long feuded with the United States.
McCain chastised the Democrat for proposing to meet with leaders of those nations without preconditions, saying, "It isn't just naive; it's dangerous." But Obama said conditions set in the past emboldened those countries.
It wasn't until the debate's final moments that McCain made his strongest critique of Obama, noting that the problems affecting the country needed his 26 years of congressional experience. For the Arizona senator, such comments represent a tightrope act as he faces the challenge of trying to present himself as an agent of change despite a long-established record in Washington.
"I honestly don't believe that Sen. Obama has the knowledge or experience and has made the wrong judgments in a number of areas," McCain said, adding that he didn't "need any on-the-job training."