Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain clashed over Iraq, Afghanistan and how to solve the economic crisis in the United States in the first presidential debate of the 2008 election.

Obama said his rival backed the U.S. president over the last eight years, and called the current financial meltdown "a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by President Bush and supported by Sen. McCain."

The candidates debated particularly passionately over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama promised to send more troops to Afghanistan to "capture or kill (Osama) Bin Laden and crush Al Qaeda."

McCain touted the "surge" strategy in Iraq and slammed Obama for his opposition to the successful 2007 tactic.

Obama responded that McCain "thinks the war started in 2007. It started in 2003."

He said McCain backed the Iraq war at the expense of the Afghanistan mission.

McCain repeatedly tried to frame Obama as inexperienced and na�ve on foreign policy.

In response to Obama's statement that it might be necessary for U.S. troops to cross into Pakistan to chase terrorists, McCain retorted "You don't say that out loud. If you have to do things, you do things."

McCain also criticized his rival for saying he would meet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions.

"So let me get this right, we sit down with Ahmadinejad and he says 'we're going to wipe Israel off the face of the earth' and we say, 'no you're not.' Oh please," McCain said.

Obama closed particularly strongly using his last remarks to pledge to restore America's place in the world.

So, who won?

Most analysts said that neither opponent really landed a knockout punch to be declared the uncontested winner.

Solon Simmons of George Mason University told CTV Newsnet that he thought the debate was a draw.

The debate was on foreign policy -- McCain's strong suit -- but most analysts thought that Obama held his own.

McCain did show off his extensive knowledge - name-checking Soviet-era leaders -- and looked much more comfortable on foreign policy than in the economic questions.

A telephone poll conducted by CNN after the debate said that 51 per cent of Americans thought Obama won the debate and 38 per cent thought McCain won.

Economy plays big role in debate

Moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS kicked off the debate by where the candidates' stood on the massive $700 billion bailout plan being worked out in Washington for Wall Street

Obama said the crisis started under President George W. Bush, who was supported by McCain. He said McCain backed Bush's "orgy of spending" over the past 8 years.

Obama said that Washington needed to step in to solve the financial meltdown, but that a package needed to include help for regular working Americans.

He called the economic crisis the worst since the Great Depression.

McCain said that government overspending factored into the crisis and accused Obama of being in favour of raising taxes.

"Government spending is out of control," McCain said, promising a spending freeze on most departments except for defense.

Sen. Barack Obama countered saying, "The problem is you're using a hatchet where you need a scalpel."

Obama said that he would not raise taxes on any making less than $250,000.

McCain accused Obama of having the "most liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate."

Obama fired back that he was only opposing "George Bush's wrong-headed policies."

Although the debate was supposed to focus only on foreign policy, the first 40 minutes was almost entirely spent discussing the economy.

More than 80 million Americans and many more around the world were expected to tune in to the debate.

Debate nearly didn't happen

But it wasn't a sure thing that tonight's debate would even happen, as McCain only announced earlier in the day that he would attend the debate against Obama in Mississippi.

McCain had announced earlier this week that he would suspend his campaign while U.S. lawmakers hammered out details of the US$700-billion bailout package.

At the time, he also suggested that the presidential debate should be postponed if a deal was not reached before Friday night, so that he and Obama could help foster a bipartisan outcome.

A final deal hasn't yet been reached, but lawmakers continue to negotiate in Washington.

A statement by the McCain camp confirming his attendance at tonight's debate noted that the Arizona senator will return to Washington after the debate to be part of the talks.

"John McCain's decision to suspend his campaign was made in the hopes that politics could be set aside to address our economic crisis," the statement said. "In response, Americans saw a familiar spectacle in Washington. At a moment of crisis that threatened the economic security of American families, Washington played the blame game."

Both McCain and Obama met with U.S. President George Bush on Thursday afternoon. At the time, congressional leaders said they were close to a deal, but talks on a final bailout settlement stalled late in the evening.

Obama has said all along he would attend tonight's debate.