- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2008

CEDARBURG, Wis. | With the party conventions completed and nominees named, the general election of 2008 officially began Friday with the two tickets virtually tied in the polls and a dozen battleground states too close to call.

The final 60-day sprint will likely be contested in the small towns across the Rust Belt. So both campaigns headed into the heartland, with the Republican ticket of Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin hitting hamlets with their debut of the “McCain Street USA” tour in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, meanwhile, dropped into a diner and a factory in rural Pennsylvania.

Neither side made a secret of its strategy: Mr. McCain criticized Mr. Obama for opposing last year’s surge of U.S. troops to Iraq and for a lack of a foreign policy, as Mr. Obama said his opponent was out of touch on the economy and represented nothing but a third term of the Bush administration.

Picking up where she left off after her fiery speech to conservatives at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday, the Alaska governor scolded Mr. Obama for what she said was flip-flopping on the increase of 30,000 troops in Iraq that Mr. McCain supported last summer even as his poll numbers plummeted.

“Barack Obama opposed [the surge] because he said it was doomed to fail,” she said to more than 10,000 cheering supporters packed into a city square in Cedarburg in rural Wisconsin. “But just last night, Senator Obama finally broke and brought himself to admit what all of us have known for quite some time: … The surge in Iraq has succeeded.”

Mr. Obama, who long refused to credit the surge for reduced violence in Iraq, said Thursday in a Fox News interview that “the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated,” adding that “it’s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”

Mrs. Palin ridiculed the sudden conversion.

“I guess that when you turn out to be profoundly wrong on a vital national security issue, maybe it’s comforting to pretend that everyone else was wrong, too. But, I remember it just a little differently. It seems to me there was one leader in Washington who did predict success, who refused to call retreat and risked his own career for the sake of preserving victory in Iraq, and ladies and gentlemen, that man is standing right next to me,” she said to cheers.

Later, to 10,000 supporters in Sterling Heights, Mich., she said, “John McCain was right, and he had the vision and the will to see the surge through to victory.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama headed to Duryea, Pa., telling workers at a specialty glass factory that his rival’s acceptance speech on Thursday was evidence that the Republican is out of touch with the struggles of the ordinary Americans.

“If you watched the Republican National Convention over the last three days, you wouldn’t know that we have the highest unemployment in five years because they didn’t say a thing about what is going on with the middle class,” Mr. Obama said.

He pointed out that the nation’s unemployment rate zoomed to a five-year high of 6.1 percent in August, according to a new government jobs report.

“We’ve now lost 605,000 jobs since the beginning of this year,” Mr. Obama said. “We’ve had eight consecutive months of job losses.”

Mr. Obama seized on the new jobs report as part of his strategy to tie Mr. McCain to President Bush’s stewardship of the economy and to connect with voters who fear their jobs will disappear. There is no shortage of such voters in rural stretches of Pennsylvania.

But Mr. McCain also distanced himself from the president as he blamed gridlock in Washington for the failure to act quickly.

“Americans are hurting, and we must act to create jobs. Unfortunately, while millions of Americans are gathering around the kitchen table and questioning how they can keep their homes, pay their medical bills and afford their children’s education, Washington has failed to act,” he said.

Mr. McCain and his running mate have embarked on a strategy to target small towns, focusing on key states like Wisconsin, which has been closely contested in each of the last two elections. McCain aides say Mrs. Palin will likely be deployed in small towns in battleground states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee, won Pennsylvania and Michigan [-] two states where Obama strategists think their chances are uncertain [-] and barely lost Ohio in 2004. Wisconsin, a prime target for Republicans the past two elections, went for Democrats both times.

The [Note] GOP [/NOTE] Republican pair moved on to Michigan Friday before heading to two states the Democrats have targeted, Colorado and New Mexico. The Republican presidential candidate and his vice presidential choice are expected to draw massive crowds at rallies along the way - like the one in Cedarburg - before splitting up on separate campaign schedules.

“It’s good that we came right from that convention in Minneapolis to small-town America,” Mrs. Palin said, standing beside Mr. McCain of Arizona. “Before I was governor, I was mayor of a small town and our opponents seem to look down on that experience.”

The townspeople were pro-Palin. Many held signs, including one that said, “Real Change, A Real Woman - Sarah Palin,” and another that read, “Poodles and Pitbulls for McCain-Palin.”

Mr. McCain reprised some of his rhetoric from his prime-time speech to the Republican convention Thursday night - which matched the massive television audience Mr. Obama drew during his convention speech [-] whipping the crowd to a crescendo that ended with “Change is coming! Change is coming!”

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama criticized the Republican convention, telling supporters that the agenda was more focused on the nominee than the American people.

“They spent a lot of time talking about John McCain’s biography, which we all honor,” the Illinois senator said. “They talked about me a lot, in less than respectful terms. What they didn’t talk about is you and what you’re seeing in your lives and what you’re going through, or what your friends or your neighbors are going through.”

Mr. Obama is also heading to small-town America in search of votes. Later Friday, he greeted workers and patrons at the Avenue Diner in Wyoming, Pa.

Asked by reporters his reaction to Mr. McCain’s acceptance speech, Mr. Obama replied, “Still haven’t heard, after three days, what they’re going to do for the economy.”

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