Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama - down in the polls - intensified his attacks Tuesday, accusing his Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, of botching the war on terror and ignoring the United States’ lagging schools.
In back-to-back speeches in the swing state of Ohio, Mr. Obama first knocked Mr. McCain for spending nearly three decades in Washington without a single education initiative and then, a short time later, hit him for “still fighting a war without end in Iraq, and we still haven’t taken out the terrorists responsible for 9/11.”
The criticism reinforced the Obama campaign’s strategy to portray Mr. McCain as out of touch with most Americans. He said Mr. McCain supported Republican calls to shut down the Education Department instead of paying attention to failing schools and backed the Iraq war instead of paying attention to terrorist havens in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“We heard no explanation for why Osama bin Laden is still at large, because that’s where George Bush and John McCain’s judgment has gotten us,” Mr. Obama said at a press conference in Riverside, Ohio, in response to Mr. Bush’s announcement that 8,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by February 2009.
The president’s plan would shift some forces to Afghanistan, a move long advocated by Mr. Obama, but nearly 140,000 troops would remain in Iraq, about the same force level as prior to the 2007 troop surge that helped head off a brewing civil war in Iraq.
Most of the roughly 20,000 troops that made up the surge were previously redeployed.
Mr. McCain, an early advocate of the troop surge whose staunch support of the Iraq mission nearly sunk his presidential bid, said Mr. Obama was “utterly confused by the progress in the war in Iraq.”
The Arizona senator criticized Mr. Obama for continuing to oppose the troop surge and counterinsurgency strategy that dramatically reduced violence in Iraq and made possible the force reductions announced Tuesday.
The double-barreled attack by the Obama campaign follows Mr. McCain’s overtaking Mr. Obama’s lead or jockeying to dead even in national polls. Surveys show that coveted independent and female voters shifted to Mr. McCain since last week’s Republican convention, where he energized the conservative base by naming Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
The Obama campaign is working to make sure Mr. McCain’s convention bounce quickly dissipates, as did Mr. Obama’s slight uptick in the polls after the Democratic convention.
“There is no doubt that Governor Palin attracted a lot of attention this week,” Mr. Obama, of Illinois, said at the press conference. “It has brought excitement to the Republican Party. There is no doubt about that.”
Mr. Obama made his opposition to the Iraq war a cornerstone of his presidential campaign before shifting his focus to the faltering economy.
Despite his fierce opposition to the troop surge that increased the U.S. force in Iraq to more than 160,000 in the summer of 2007, Mr. Obama recently acknowledged that the military success tamped down violence and provided the fledgling government in Baghdad space in which to forge national reconciliation.
He still pledges to pull out most U.S. troops within 16 months of taking office.
Earlier, Mr. Obama hit Mr. McCain for “indifference on education.”
In a speech in Dayton, Ohio, in which Mr. Obama reaffirmed his commitment to school vouchers and increased federal funding for schools, he said Mr. McCain’s idea of education reform was opposing efforts to hire more teachers and expand Head Start early-education programs.
Tucker Bounds, spokesman for the McCain campaign, said it was Mr. Obama who had a thin record on education.
“Rather than tout his own record, he’s left with no option but to attack John McCain,” he said. “The truth is, Barack Obama joined John McCain in supporting education reforms in the Senate. If he thinks that’s nothing, then Barack Obama is in the odd position of attacking his own record.”