ABOARD THE STRAIGHT TALK AIR — Sen. John McCain on Wednesday blasted President Bush for building a mountain of debt for future generations, failing to pay for expanding Medicare and abusing executive powers, leveling his strongest criticism to date of an administration whose unpopularity may be dragging the Republican Party to the brink of a massive electoral defeat.
"We just let things get completely out of hand," he said of his own party's rule in the past eight years.
In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. McCain lashed out at a litany of Bush policies and issues that he said he would have handled differently as president, days after a poll showed that he began making up ground on Sen. Barack Obama since he emphatically sought to distance himself from Mr. Bush in the final debate.
"Spending, the conduct of the war in Iraq for years, growth in the size of government, larger than any time since the Great Society, laying a $10 trillion debt on future generations of America, owing $500 billion to China, obviously, failure to both enforce and modernize the [financial] regulatory agencies that were designed for the 1930s and certainly not for the 21st century, failure to address the issue of climate change seriously," Mr. McCain said in an interview with The Washington Times aboard his campaign plane en route from New Hampshire to Ohio.
"Those are just some of them," he said with a laugh, chomping into a peanut butter sandwich as a few campaign aides in his midair office joined in the laughter.
In the interview, Mr. McCain rejected the notion that he could win on the strength of voters who won't vote for a black president.
"I reject categorically the concept that people would, any number of people would vote on the basis of race," he said.
He also hit Mr. Obama for breaking his pledge to take public campaign financing; said Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. has as much as acknowledged that Mr. Obama would make the world more dangerous; and cautioned that while he may be down in the race, he's not out.
"There is one lesson of history, and that is every time we've been written off, that's when we've had a comeback," he said with an emphatic chop of his hand, just after flying out of the state that propelled him to the Republican nomination.
The self-described maverick, who was counted out of the Republican race in summer 2007, may to be doing just that. Although he trails in the polls in at least a half-dozen pivotal states, a new Associated Press survey finds the race statistically even, with Mr. Obama at 44 percent and Mr. McCain at 43 percent.
The survey found that Mr. McCain had surged among whites and people earning less than $50,000; among rural voters — he now has an 18-point advantage, up from four points in the previous poll — and on the issue of the economy, where he picked up nine percentage points and now trails the Democrat by just six points.
Mr. Obama has spent virtually the entire campaign linking Mr. McCain to the president, saying a McCain term would be "four more years of George Bush" and identifying various Republican policies with the adjective "Bush-McCain."
Mr. McCain has in recent days sharpened his criticism of Mr. Bush, including adding a line from his final debate to his daily stump speech, that if Mr. Obama "wanted to run against George Bush, he should have run four years ago."
But on Wednesday, Mr. McCain went further in distancing himself from the man who beat him for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. In addition to the long list of failures he attributed to Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain blamed the president for supporting the Medicare prescription-drug bill, saying, "They didn't pay for it."
"They put a trillion-dollar debt on future generations of Americans, then allowed the liberals to expand it so they're paying my — they're paying for my prescription drugs. Why should the taxpayers pay for my prescription drugs?" he said with exasperation.
He rejected Mr. Bush's use of issuing "signing statements" when he signs bills into law, in which the president has suggested that he would ignore elements of the bills, labeling them potentially unconstitutional.
"I would veto the bills or say, 'Look, I don't like it but I'll obey the law that's passed by Congress and signed by the president.' I think the signing statements was not a correct implementation of the power of the executive. I think it was overstepping," he said.
And Mr. McCain emphatically rejected Mr. Bush's claims of executive privilege, often used to shield the White House from scrutiny.
"I don't agree with that either. I don't agree with [Vice President] Dick Cheney's allegation that he's part of both the legislative and the executive branch," he said.
Still, Mr. McCain said Mr. Bush deserves credit for expanding faith-based organizations, which he said have done "enormously good things, domestically and overseas."
"The president put into real practice compassionate conservatism when they supported and helped grow enormously a lot of these faith-based organizations, which, by the way, is now at risk because Senator Obama says they have to adhere to federal hiring practices, which would then cause them not to be able to function," he said.
The Republican also targeted his own party, saying they got drunk with power and lacked the resolve of President Reagan.
"I think, frankly, the problem was, with a Republican Congress, that the president was told by the speaker and majority leaders and others, 'Don't veto these bills, we need this pork, we need this excess spending, we need to grow these bureaucracies.' They all sponsor certain ones. And he didn't do what Ronald Reagan used to and say, 'No'; say, 'No. We're not going to do this.'"
When contacted about Mr. McCain's criticism of Mr. Bush, White House spokesman Anthony E. Warren said the administration would have no comment.
Mr. McCain said Mr. Biden has now as much as acknowledged that the world will be more dangerous if Mr. Obama wins the presidential election.
"We live in a dangerous world and Senator Obama's running mate has just assured Americans it'll be a heck of a lot more dangerous if you elect him president," he said.
Mr. Biden predicted at a fundraiser Sunday that if elected president, Mr. Obama would face immediate challenge from a hostile power or terrorist group intent on testing the first-term senator.
"Mark my words. It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We're about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator president of the United States of America. Remember, I said it standing here, if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch, we're going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy."
Mr. Biden said Mr. Obama would have to make "some really tough" decisions when that occurs, adding emphatically: "As a student of history and having served with seven presidents, I guarantee you it's going to happen."
The Democratic vice-presidential running mate said he could envision four or five scenarios, citing the Middle East and Russia.
Mr. McCain called Mr. Biden's comment "the most remarkable comment I have ever seen in presidential politics."
"Now he is saying — if we elected Senator Obama as president of the United States we are going to have an international crisis in these very dangerous times with the economy in the tank?" Mr. McCain said.
At a press conference Wednesday in Virginia, Mr. Obama noted Mr. Biden's words, saying that although "Joe sometimes engages in rhetorical flourishes," his central point was correct and a reason to back the Democratic team.
"His core point was, the next administration is going to be tested, regardless of who it is," Mr. Obama said. "The question is: Will the next president meet that test by moving America in a new direction, by sending a clear signal to the rest of the world that we are no longer about bluster and unilateralism and ideology?"
In a statement, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds responded: "It's not leadership for Barack Obama to promise to be straight with Americans, only to dismiss serious statements and concern from his own running mate as simple 'rhetorical flourishes.'"
As for the state of the campaign map, Mr. McCain said he sees himself five percentage points down to Mr. Obama in the race for Pennsylvania, although every poll in the past two weeks has put the deficit in double digits. Still, he said he is making a comeback, and pointed to comments by Democratic luminaries he said encourage him.
"Ed Rendell just said, I want President Clinton to come back because I'm nervous," Mr. McCain said, referring to the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania who has reportedly sent memos asking the Clintons to return to the state to campaign for Mr. Obama.
Mr. McCain said Mr. Obama's giant fundraising total — he announced this weekend that he raised more than $150 million in September — is going to produce "a scandal."
His campaign and the Republican National Committee have released the names of all his donors, including those who have contributed less than $200. That's not required by federal election rules, and Mr. Obama has declined to release his small-dollar donors, leading to speculation that some donors are trying to circumvent fundraising laws.
"History is a clear indicator. Senator Obama has unleashed a force which we will pay a very heavy price for sometime in the future if not now, because it's very unlikely we can track down and document the contributions that he refuses to reveal," said Mr. McCain, who co-authored a bipartisan bill to overhaul campaign fundraising laws.
Mr. McCain took great umbrage at comments by Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, who compared the atmosphere at recent Republican rallies to those of 1960s-era segregationist George Wallace.
"Here, a guy I admire and respect, a hero of the civil rights movement, saying, making a statement that somehow [Governor Sarah] Palin and I are involved in segregationist behavior, I mean, is beyond reason. In the debate the other night, Barack Obama refused to repudiate those remarks. I've repudiated every time there's been some inappropriate comment by a GOP operative anywhere."
Mr. McCain called that failure to repudiate Mr. Lewis' comment "certainly something that I don't think is acceptable."
The Republican nominee defended his campaign strategy of targeting Mr. Obama's ties to former domestic terrorist William Ayers but not to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
Saying the issue of Mr. Wright has been "pretty well-ventilated," Mr. McCain said Mr. Obama has been slippery on his links to Mr. Ayers. He would not himself say being linked to Mr. Ayers makes Mr. Obama radical.
"The American people can make that judgment, he said, adding, "it's about full revelation of the relationship."
"First [he] said it was a guy in the neighborhood, then he said, aw, well, that he knew him, now we find out he wrote blurbs for his book, now we find out that he served on the Woods Foundation board, which, coincidentally, gave ACORN $230,000," he said, referring to the liberal activist group which has long-standing ties to Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers and is accused of voter-registration fraud in several states.
"Look, it was an extensive relationship — the American people need to know the full extent of it. He's not being candid and truthful," the senator from Arizona said.
Asked whether he thinks he's getting bad press coverage (the Project for Excellence in Journalism says in a report out today that 57 percent of the stories written about him for the past six weeks have been negative, with just 14 percent positive), he said, "Ah, listen, I'm not going to complain about the press corps."
But he bristles when asked about whether he is still the "old McCain," the maverick who wowed the media with his 2000 presidential run, when he bucked the Republican Party establishment, drawing gushing praise from an infatuated media.
"The interesting thing is, and it's happened on numerous occasions, I get 'How come you're not the old McCain?' and usually it's an Obama talking point from somebody. And I say, 'OK, tell me how I've changed.' 'Well, you changed on taxes.' I say, 'Look, I was for tax cuts, I wasn't for those tax cuts,'" he said, explaining his opposition to Mr. Bush's tax cuts in 2001 and 2003.
"There is no example they can cite that I'm any different, but they want people to believe that I'm different. I understand that, but it's just baloney. I'm the same guy. … We're working as hard as we can. You just put one foot ahead of the other for the next 13 days as we have for the past two years," he said with a laugh.
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