TAMPA, Fla. — Sen. Barack Obama, setting foot in the nation's biggest battleground state for his first campaign event since the fall,offered an olive branch to Florida voters whose Democratic primary results still hang in the balance and attacked presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain.
Even though Mr. McCain enjoys strong support in Florida, Mr. Obama has pulled ahead in national tracking polls. His advance further deflates his Democratic rival's argument that she is better positioned to beat the Republicans in the fall.
"It is good to be back. I know you've been holding down the fort," Mr. Obama told a boisterous crowd of about 15,000 at the St. Pete Times Forum in downtown Tampa. The rally was his first public appearance in Florida since September, although he attended two fundraisers in November.
"I am here to report that my debt has been paid off and my faith in the American people has been vindicated because everywhere I go people are standing up and saying we're ready for change."
Florida Democrats overwhelmingly favored Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state's Jan. 29 contest, but she hasn't reaped the benefit as Mr. Obama has pulled within 64 delegates from laying claim to the party nomination with the June 3 primary finish line fast approaching. Because the state broke Democratic National Committee rules by holding its primary too early, voters will have to wait until May 31 to know whether their votes count.
Mr. Obama barely mentioned Mrs. Clinton but said she "has run an outstanding campaign and she deserves our admiration and our respect."
The senator from New York has promised to fight through the next three contests: Puerto Rico, Montana and South Dakota.
In a 40-minute speech that was interrupted several times by cheering supporters, Mr. Obama focused on deflecting criticism from Mr. McCain, who has portrayed the senator from Illinois as too inexperienced to handle the job as president and commander in chief.
"The other side isn't trying to make this campaign about you; they're trying to make it about me," he said.
Mr. Obama repeatedly tried to link Mr. McCain with the Bush administration, saying, "We have a chance in November to bring an end to [Hurricane] Katrina incompetence" and the "failed economic policies of George W. Bush."
He also blasted Mr. McCain on the Iraq war and skyrocketing gasoline prices and accused the senator from Arizona of having cozy relations with lobbyists, highlighting Mr. McCain's proposal 10 years ago to bar lobbyists from working on campaigns.
"John McCain then would be pretty disappointed in John McCain now, because he hired some of the biggest lobbyists in Washington to run his campaign," Mr. Obama said.
With Mr. McCain fundraising in California, campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds responded: "Despite his own rhetoric, Senator Obama still refuses to disclose the list of lobbyists advising his campaign. What is Senator Obama hiding?
"We challenge Senator Obama to meet our standard" for keeping lobbyists out of the campaign organization, Mr. Bounds added.
In addition to taking an eight-point lead in a Reuters news agency poll by John Zogby, Mr. Obama continued to dominate the fundraising game.
Despite a record haul of nearly $18 million last month by the McCain campaign, the Obama campaign took in $31.3 million in April, according to Federal Election Commission reports filed this week.
By contrast, Mrs. Clinton raised $21 million but reported $19.4 million in debts.
According to the Campaign Finance Institute, Mrs. Clinton's debts include $10 million in loans that she made to the campaign.
Mr. Obama also picked up a key local endorsement yesterday when Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio announced for the first time that she was backing the senator from Illinois.
"He is gifted in his ability to bring everybody together, and that's what this country needs," said Mrs. Iorio, who helped introduce the candidate at this campaign stop.
Reps. Kathy Castor and Robert Wexler, Florida Democrats, also preceded Mr. Obama on the Tampa stage.
Mr. Obama exited to the Stevie Wonder song "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," an ongoing reference to his position on securing his party's nomination.
But the debate over who will emerge as the final Democratic presidential candidate is still uncertain.
The national party stripped Florida and Michigan of all their delegates as punishment for violating party rules by moving their primaries to January.
Neither Democratic candidate campaigned in Florida and Michigan. Mrs. Clinton won both states, although Mr. Obama's name wasn't on the Michigan ballot.
Mrs. Clinton says she is willing to take her fight to seat Florida and Michigan delegates to the party's August convention in Denver if the two states want to go that far.
She told the Associated Press yesterday that she would support the states if they continue the fight.
"Yes I will. I will, because I feel very strongly about this," she said.
Mr. Obama was scheduled to attend a town hall meeting in Kissimmee in Central Florida yesterday afternoon. He also had planned events in South Florida today and Friday.
The senator from Illinois was just 64 delegates short of the 2,026 needed to clinch the nomination, after two superdelegate endorsements yesterday and a pair of primaries the previous night. Mrs. Clinton thrashed him in Kentucky; he answered by winning Oregon.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.