Obama and McCain each failed to score a decisive victory in their debate [Reuters]

In a week which had already shaken US politics to the core, the first presidential debate had a lot to live up to.

Democrats and Republicans in Washington had already put on a display of political theatre set to match anything on offer to those in attendance at the University of Mississippi on Friday evening.

With the government's proposed $700bn financial bail-out topping the news agenda it seemed unlikely that the candidates would be able to stick to the foreign policy script.

John McCain, who Democrats accused of politicising the negotiations, started the debate looking uncertain and defensive, and offered few clear-cut answers about what he would do differently to tackle the global financial crisis.

Obama seemed more sure of his position on the current economic turmoil, calling for greater regulation of financial markets and attacking McCain for saying that the economy is fundamentally sound.

Bland encounter

There were also sharp exchanges on foreign policy. Obama castigated McCain for supporting the invasion of Iraq, while McCain attacked the Illinois senator for considering holding talks with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president.

McCain also described Obama as naive for suggesting that al-Qaeda leaders could be attacked by US forces inside Pakistan.

Obama responded by pointing to McCain's singing of "Bomb Iran" at a campaign event in South Carolina as an example of the Arizona senator's bad judgement.

But throughout the debate both senators seemed reluctant to engage with other, prefering to speak to Jim Lehrer, the moderator, rather than address each other directly.

And Obama's supporters may be frustrated by his strategy of allowing McCain to mount attacks on his policies.

Sparks did not fly and the 90 million American voters watching the debate may not feel that they had learned much from the 90 minute session.

Campaign 'spin'

After the event, the candidates senior backers entered the so-called spin-room, where journalists gather to watch the debate, in an attempt to shape the news coverage of the event.

The debate is one of the key events
of the presidential race [AFP]
Even as the debate took place, McCain campaign officials, passed out 'debate fact sheets' to put their spin on the event.

Inside the huge hall, directly opposite the Ford Center where the debate took place, hundreds of journalists charged forward to surround senior party and campaign figures in an attempt to get the 'inside track' on what the candidates messages were during the debate.

The Republicans brought out some of their heaviest hitters, including Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, and Trent Lott, the Republican former leader of the senate, to make the case for the McCain campaign.

Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain campaign strategist, said that Obama had agreed with McCain 11 times during the debate, which showed how the Republican candidate had won the face-off.

For the Democrats, Madeline Albright, the former US secretary of state under Bill Clinton and senior campaign strategists David Plouffe and David Axelrod.

Plouffe said Obama had won the foreign policy debate, supposedly McCain's forte.

Youth involvement

Whatever the outcome the town of Oxford was pleased the debate had taken place at all.

Months of planning and millions of dollars spent in preparation had been put in jeopardy by McCain's request for the debate to be postponed, leaving many students angry.

But as news came through that the debate was going to go ahead a palpable sense of relief swept throught the small town of just 20,000 residents.

Before the debate, Rock the Vote, which encourages young people to get involved in politics, held a rock concert on the university grounds, which more than 1,000 people attended.

Many in the enthusiastic crowd brought Obama and McCain flags and banners. Pro-Darfur and anti-global groups were just some of those on campus attempting to drawn in new supporters.

Residents were also set gather to watch the debate on a huge screen in the town's central square.

Source: Al Jazeera