- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2008

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama said Saturday that the campaign of his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, is not racist but is cynical in trying to divert voter attention from the real issues of the presidential campaign.

Mr. Obama met with reporters for the first time since the McCain campaign claimed that the Illinois Democrat had “played the race card” by warning that Mr. McCain would try to scare voters about how Mr. Obama looks unlike “all those other presidents on the dollar bills” — all of whom are white men.

In the ensuing debate, a McCain spokesman suggested that the Arizona Republican was being painted as a racist. That’s an attempt to shift the campaign’s focus, Mr. Obama argued Saturday.

“In no way do I think that John McCain’s campaign was being racist,” Mr. Obama said. “I think they’re cynical, and I think they want to distract people from talking about the real issues.”

He added of the Republicans’ approach: “They’re very good at negative campaigning. They’re not so good at governing.”

Reporters questioned Mr. Obama about the issue of race as he campaigned for a second day in Florida, where offshore oil drilling was emerging as a top issue. The Illinois senator said he was willing to compromise his stand against further drilling along the U.S. coastline if other proposals were part of a plan for energy independence.

“What I’m interested in, ultimately, is going to be governing,” he said. “What that means is we’re going to have to try to get things done.”

A McCain campaign spokesman, Tucker Bounds, said in a statement Saturday: “We’re glad the Obama campaign retracted Barack Obama’s accusation because it was absolutely false, and we’re moving on. 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.”

The presidential contest warmed over the past week with charges between the two sides escalating. Mr. McCain contended that Mr. Obama had injected race into the debate with his warning and his reference to presidents on U.S. currency.

At his news conference Saturday, Mr. Obama pointed the finger back at Mr. McCain.

“None of you thought I was making a racially incendiary remark, or playing the race card,” he said. “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.”

Since returning from an overseas trip, Mr. Obama has sought to shift the focus of the campaign back onto bedrock economic issues, and he conceded that Mr. McCain had made that difficult. He said Mr. McCain is seeking to cast him as a risky choice because he doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional presidential candidate.

“I don’t come out of Central Casting when it comes to presidential races for a whole range of reasons,” he said. “I’m young; I’m new to the national scene; my name is Barack Obama; I’m African-American; I was born in Hawaii; I spent time in Indonesia; I don’t have the typical biography of a presidential candidate.”

Mr. Obama argued that voters are still taking their measure of a new kind of presidential candidate, and he said Mr. McCain is cynically trying to feed any doubts that voters may have — and with some success. He cited a McCain TV commercial comparing his “celebrity” to that of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.

“You’ve got statistics that say we’ve lost another 50,000 jobs, that Florida is in a recession for the first time in a decade and a half, and what was being talked about was Paris and Britney,” Mr. Obama said.

“They’re clever on creating distractions from the issues that really matter in people’s lives,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure we keep focused on people’s day-to-day concerns. We don’t take the skill of the Republicans in engaging in negative campaigning lightly.”

The Illinois Democrat caused a stir this week when he announced he would support a compromise plan in Congress that would allow some offshore oil drilling, reversing his longstanding opposition. He argued that drilling is part of a larger energy package that includes many other items that he backs.

Offshore drilling is a major issue in Florida and other coastal states with miles of pristine beaches, which are a staple of the tourism industry that drives their economies.

“At some point people are going to have to make decisions. Are we going to keep arguing, or are we going to get things done?” Mr. Obama said.

“What I don’t want to do is for the best to be the enemy of the good,” he said. “And if we can come up with a genuine bipartisan compromise, in which I have to accept some things that I don’t like or the Democrats have to accept some things that they don’t like in exchange for actually moving us in the direction of actual energy independence, then that’s something I’m open to.”

Mr. Obama focused on the economy in a town-hall meeting in Titusville on Saturday and later in the day in remarks to the National Urban League in Orlando.

“Are you better off now than you were four years ago or eight years ago?” Mr. Obama said, reprising a line that Ronald Reagan used when he ousted President Carter in 1980. “Can you afford another four years of George Bush’s economic policies? It’s time to restore fairness and balance to the American economy.”

For the National Urban League, Mr. Obama mixed a focus on the economy with a slap at Mr. McCain, who has labeled Mr. Obama a mere celebrity without substance.

“We face serious issues in this election and have real differences,” Mr. Obama said in remarks prepared for delivery. “I’m not going to assault Sen. McCain’s character; I’m not going to compare him to pop stars. I will, however, compare our two visions for our economic future.”

Mr. McCain used the same venue on Friday to attack Mr. Obama on education, and Mr. Obama pushed back.

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

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