- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama said Saturday that Sen. John McCain was not running a racist campaign, though he did say the Arizona senator was being “cynical” and trying to scare Americans and distract them from “real issues.”

“In no way do I think that John McCain’s campaign was being racist,” Mr. Obama told reporters in Florida during his first press conference since predicting that Mr. McCain and other Republicans would try to scare voters because Mr. Obama “doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills” - all dead white men.

But Mr. Obama still laid blame for the flap on the McCain team for highlighting a charge that, with minor wording variations, he frequently makes in his stump speeches: that Republicans will try to scare Americans away from him.

“None of you thought I was making a racially incendiary remark, or playing the race card,” he told reporters. “It wasn’t until John McCain’s team started pushing it that it ended up being on the front page of the New York Times two days in a row.”

“I think they’re cynical,” he went on to say, accusing Republicans of being “very good at negative campaigning [and] not so good at governing.” The party, therefore, wants “to distract people from talking about the real issues.”

Nevertheless, McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said Mr. Obama had repudiated the racism charge.

“We’re glad the Obama campaign retracted Barack Obama’s accusation, because it was absolutely false, and we’re moving on,” he said. “The only ‘cynical’ candidate in this election is Barack Obama, for his continued opposition to John McCain’s comprehensive energy plan that includes additional oil drilling, gas-tax relief and affordable nuclear energy.”

Meanwhile Saturday, the Obama campaign finally rejected Mr. McCain’s invitation for a series of joint town-hall style appearances, saying the Illinois senator likely would participate only in the customary three debates in September and October.

In a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said he expects the panel’s three presidential and one vice-presidential debates to be the only such events.

“Due to the late date of the two parties’ nominating conventions, and the relatively short period between the end of the conventions and the first proposed debate, it is likely that the four commission debates will be the sole series of debates in the fall campaign,” Mr. Plouffe said. He advised the commission to make final arrangements soon.

That refusal got the McCain team’s fax machines and e-mail accounts buzzing Saturday, using the “disappointing” refusal of more debates as fresh proof of their recent campaign theme - that Mr. Obama is a vacuous celebrity.

“We understand it might be beneath a worldwide celebrity of Barack Obama’s magnitude to appear at town-hall meetings alongside John McCain and directly answer questions from the American people, but we hope he’ll reconsider,” spokesman Brian Rogers said.

Mr. Rogers also painted the debate stance as the latest Obama flip-flop. In an e-mailed statement, he included a video link to a South Dakota speech in which the Democrat said that “if John McCain wants to meet me anywhere, anytime, to have a debate about [foreign policy], that is a conversation I am happy to have.”

In May, a McCain adviser floated the idea that the two men appear at a series of town-hall meetings during the summer. Mr. McCain sharpened the offer personally in early June, just after Mr. Obama clinched his party’s nomination, challenging the Illinois Democrat to 10 town-hall-style events. A series of meetings between the two campaign teams resulted, but nothing has come of them.

Mr. Obama said when the “town hall” offer was first suggested: “I think that’s a great idea.”

“Obviously, we would have to think through the logistics on that,” he said at the time, while campaigning in Oregon. But “if I have the opportunity to debate substantive issues before the voters with John McCain, that’s something that I am going to welcome.”

Mr. McCain frequently charges at campaign events that Mr. Obama has not followed through on the town-hall meetings.

While repeating that “it’s likely” that the commission debates will be the only ones, Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki told the Associated Press “we’re not saying” that no other debates would be possible. She added that the McCain team had rejected her campaign’s proposal for two joint town-hall meetings.

Obama advisers also told the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity that their man is the front-runner, and therefore is reluctant to take chances or give Mr. McCain a high-profile stage. They said his stance on debates is part of that play-it-safe strategy.

The first commission debate is set for Sept. 26 in Oxford, Miss., and will focus on domestic issues. The one vice-presidential debate comes next, on Oct. 2, and the other two presidential debates follow - an Oct. 7 town-hall format meeting and an Oct. 15 debate on foreign policy.

Mr. Obama spent Saturday campaigning in Florida and spoke to the National Urban League’s national convention, which Mr. McCain had addressed a day earlier, in Titusville.

Mr. Obama vigorously defended his push to bolster the nation’s schools and dismissed Mr. McCain’s record on the issue.

“This is someone who has been in Washington nearly 30 years, has a pretty slim record on education, and when he has taken a stand, it’s been the wrong one,” Mr. Obama said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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