Thursday, October 30, 2008

TAMPA, Fla. | Sen. John McCain fiercely cast Sen. Barack Obama as unfit to be commander in chief and take on the “grave threats” that await the next president, hours before his Democratic rival addressed tens of millions nationwide in a 30-minute, prime-time infomercial.

Seeking to turn the campaign away from the economic crisis and toward national security with just six days left in the race, Mr. McCain strayed far from his standard stump speech, declaring that his rival simply has not proved himself up to the task.

“The question is whether this is a man who has what it takes to protect America from Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and other grave threats in the world. And he has given you no reason to answer in the affirmative,” Mr. McCain said after a national security roundtable with top military and intelligence specialists.

Mr. Obama’s 30-minute ad broke no new ground or made any new proposals, but rather touched on each of his major campaign promises: an economic rescue for middle-class families, health care reform, energy independence, a commitment to national security and an end to the war in Iraq. Each issue was punctuated by testimonials by voters about hard times in the U.S.

“What struck me most about these stories you will see tonight is not just the challenges these Americans face but also their resolve to change this country,” Mr. Obama said in the introduction to the video, which concluded with two minutes of a live rally in a hockey arena in Sunrise, Fla.

At other Florida rallies, including one with running mate Joseph R. Biden Jr. and another with former President Bill Clinton in Orlando, the senator from Illinois continued his focus on the economy, the issue that has moved him ahead in polls in several battleground states.

In Raleigh, N.C., he painted a bleak picture of a McCain presidency, mocking “Joe the Plumber” as he told supporters that they would get no help paying for college, see their health benefits taxed and see tax relief go to the rich.

“So whether you are Suzy the Student, or Nancy the Nurse, or Tina the Teacher, or Carl the Construction Worker, if my opponent is elected, you will be worse off four years from now than you are today,” Mr. Obama said. “Let’s cut through the negative ads and the phony attacks.”

Mr. McCain countered the expected thrust of the Obama ad, saying that a president is not simply an economic manager but also a national leader in charge of foreign policy - a much less predictable task for which he said Mr. Obama is not prepared.

“We’re going to get through this economic crisis. But when that day arrives and the worries of financial crisis have fallen away, we will find awaiting our country all of the same great challenges and dangers that were there all along,” he said.

“They mattered before the economic turmoil of the present. They will matter still when it has passed. And in a time of war, at a moment of danger for our country and the world, let it not be said of us that we lost sight of these challenges.”

Mr. Obama did not comment on Mr. McCain’s charges on national security, but a surrogate, retired Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, ripped the senator from Arizona.

“When the next president is tested, the American people can have John McCain’s judgment of siding with George Bush and Dick Cheney on every major national security decision, or they can have the steady leadership and sound judgment of Barack Obama that has earned the support of Americans like General Colin Powell,” the general said.

Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain stumped in the Sunshine State, a crucial battleground that is tilting toward the Democratic candidate.

The senator from Illinois leads in most state polls, by an average of 3.5 points, but his advantage is within the polls’ margins of error.

Mr. Obama spent more than $3 million to showcase the plight of everyday Americans and outline his intentions for helping them in a spot broadcast on all but one major network, plus BET and Univision.

The McCain campaign dismissed the TV spot as a mere sales pitch.

“As anyone who has bought anything from an infomercial knows, the sales job is always better than the product,” McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said. “Buyer beware.”

On the stump, the Republican candidate himself mocked Mr. Obama’s ad in similar terms, saying: “As with other infomercials, he’s got a few things he wants to sell you: He’s offering government-run health care, … an energy plan guaranteed to work without drilling … and an automatic wealth spreader that folds neatly and fits under any bed.”

The “real stories” in the Obama infomercial included Rebecca Johnston, a mother struggling to make ends meet in North Kansas City, Mo., and 72-year-old Larry Stuart, who had to mortgage his home in Sardinia, Ohio, and come out of retirement to afford medicine for his chronically ill wife.

“We have to stop just talking about health care reform and lost jobs and energy independence and finally do something about it,” Mr. Obama said.

He said he would pay for his plans - expanding health care coverage, spending $15 billion a year on alternative energy projects, giving tax credits for buying fuel-efficient cars - by cutting spending, improving government efficiency and eliminating failing federal programs.

“Across the country, families are tightening their belts, and so should Washington,” he said. “And one of the biggest savings we can make is to change our policy in Iraq.”

The Obama ad was expected to attract record viewers as many watched television to see what may be the final game of the Phillies-Rays World Series. It was produced by Academy Award winner Davis Guggenheim and includes footage from Mr. Obama’s more than 20 months on the campaign trail.

Billionaire candidate H. Ross Perot in 1992 in his failed independent bid for the presidency was the last politician to use such a tactic. Mr. Obama has outspent Mr. McCain, having raised more than $600 million for his presidential bid while Mr. McCain agreed to take $84 million in public funds.

At the Milton A. Barlow Center in Foggy Bottom, Brigham Young University students spending a semester in the District at area internships gathered to watch, passed around chocolate and made election night plans.

“This is great for Barack Obama, but I don’t think this is going to help his campaign. I think this is about building consensus if he does become president after this rough election,” said Cecily Vincent, 20.

A couple of students cheered when Mr. Obama vowed to defend the country. During the segment about seniors facing challenges, Andrew Skabelund, 23, said: “This is depressing, the melodramatic music.”

Brooke Robinson, 19, said: “The Obama-mercial was just reconfirming the same type of stuff from his campaign, but I enjoyed it.”

After the Obama ad ran, Mr. McCain made a one-hour appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live” program.

Mr. McCain said earlier Wednesday that Mr. Obama talks eloquently about his record but charged that the Democrat had repeatedly made the wrong call during crises, including when he opposed a surge of 20,000 combat troops into Iraq almost two years ago, which helped reduce violence and deliver stability to the war-torn country.

“He cites as his most courageous moment in public life a speech he gave in 2002 - against a war resolution on which he had no vote, on a matter of national security for which he bore no responsibility. He hopes you will forget the votes he cast when he actually did have responsibility - his votes to prevent the strategy that is leading to victory, and to deny funding for the troops who are gaining that victory.

“And now he hopes that in the cloud of crisis at home you will forget the stakes in Iraq - the disaster and tragedy that would follow if American forces leave in retreat,” he said.

Both candidates were targeting Hispanics, albeit in vastly different ways. Mr. Obama aimed a 30-minute ad on Univision as part of his prime-time advertising campaign. The buy on the country’s largest Spanish-language network is a first in the history of presidential campaign.

As he did during an earlier stop in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Mr. McCain lambasted Mr. Obama for pledging to meet with dictators and leaders of rogue nations without preconditions.

“My opponent assumes far more good will than is warranted from Kim Jong-il the tyrant of North Korea; Hugo Chavez, the leader of Venezuela who wishes to export instability to neighboring countries; and the Castro brothers, who have given Cuba 50 years’ worth of socialist misery and are still at it.

“In each case, Senator Obama presents his plan for direct talks as if no one before had ever considered that. He seems unaware that mere talk has been tried many times, to no avail and that our adversaries recognize such gestures as a sign of weakness,” he said.

S.A. Miller and Emily Kimball contributed to this report.

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