By Michael D. Shear and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 6, 2008
MILWAUKEE, Sept. 5 -- Their political coronations behind them, John McCain and Barack Obama began a two-month sprint to Election Day by attacking each other over a report that showed unemployment surging in an already unsteady economy.
McCain joined Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin on Friday for two rallies in the Midwest, a day after accepting the Republican presidential nomination he had sought for almost a decade, using the backdrop of small towns to blast his Democratic rival as wanting to raise taxes.
"These are tough times. Tough times in Wisconsin. Tough times in Ohio. Tough times all over America," McCain told thousands packed into the picturesque downtown of Cedarburg, Wis. "My opponent will raise your taxes. My tax cuts will create jobs. His tax increases -- increases, he wants to increase your taxes! -- he'll eliminate 'em!"
Obama hit back sharply, using McCain's words to portray the Republican as insensitive to the problems of ordinary voters. Campaigning in the Scranton, Pa., area, he quoted McCain's observation, voiced during an interview with talk-show host Laura Ingraham two weeks ago, that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong."
"What's more fundamental than having a job?" Obama scoffed. "What's more fundamental than seeing your incomes keep pace with inflation so that you can save a little bit and watch your child walk off stage with a college diploma in their hand? What's more fundamental than that? I don't think this is because John McCain is a bad person. I just don't think they get it."
Both campaigns wasted no time in shifting away from the partisan messages aimed at the party faithful at their nominating conventions in Denver and St. Paul, Minn., and back toward the political center where both hope to find the votes they need for victory this fall.
An employment report released Friday morning reminded both camps that the nation's ailing economy cannot be ignored. Unemployment hit 6.1 percent, the highest in five years. Payrolls dropped by 84,000 jobs.
In Cedarburg, McCain delivered on the promise of his convention speech, making "reform" and "change" the central theme of his final campaign push as he casts himself as an outsider despite having served more than two decades in Congress.
"We're going to go across the small towns of America, and we are going to give them hope, and we're going to give them confidence, and we will bring about change in Washington," he thundered with a passion that seemed missing during his acceptance speech on Thursday night.
The crowd responded enthusiastically, chanting "John McCain! John McCain!" and booing any mention of Obama.
Palin, the first woman to appear on a Republican presidential ticket, continued her attacks on Obama, mocking his background as a community organizer in Chicago and deriding him as showing indifference toward small-town people.
"These are the people who do some of the hardest work in America," she said, prompting chants of "U-S-A." "They grow our foods and they run our factories and they fight our wars. They love their country, in good times and in bad, and they are always proud to be an American."
In Cedarburg, and later at an outdoor rally with thousands of people in Sterling Heights, Mich., it was Palin who stole the show. A senior McCain adviser said the campaign's internal polling shows that she is having a remarkable effect on the ticket, particularly among working women and in rural America.
The adviser said that in focus groups, Palin is seen as "Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington -- a genuine 'real person,' but who has proven she can shake things up and get things done" while being "someone they see as a caring mom who can be tough."
Palin showed more of the smiling sarcasm that wowed her convention audience, cribbing from her speech in St. Paul to put Obama down. "I guess a small-time mayor is sort of like a community organizer. Only, you have actual responsibilities," she said.
She also slammed Obama for his opposition to President Bush's troop "surge" in Iraq, noting that he admitted the tactic's success in a combative interview with conservative talk-show host Bill O'Reilly on Thursday.
" 'I think,' said Senator Obama, 'that the surge has succeeded in ways that nobody anticipated,' " Palin said, quoting the interview. "I guess 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."
After the event, she and McCain worked the crowd as they made their way to the Chocolate Factory, an ice cream shop and diner on Main Street. McCain bought a scoop of watermelon sherbet and a brownie for his wife, Cindy. Palin, an avid moose hunter, ordered a flavor called "moose tracks," taking a healthy lick for the cameras.
In Pennsylvania, Obama seized on the jobless numbers to bolster his contention that the economy is off track and that Republicans are to blame -- now the heart of his message to voters.
Campaigning this week through the Rust Belt, the Democrat promoted investments in new energy sources and automobile manufacturing as the sort of fixes he would deliver "so that those jobs are created right here in the United States," as he told a crowd at the Schott specialty glass factory in Duryea, Pa., on Friday. But, he added, "we've got to have a vision from the White House to do it."
He has been hitting on the same basic theme, whether the crowd is 20,000 people in a minor-league baseball park or 150 factory employees -- the total on hand on Friday morning. Obama argued that the Bush administration has badly mismanaged the economy, resulting in layoffs and home foreclosures, higher gas and food prices and missed growth opportunities -- and that electing McCain would result in more of the same.
Obama ridiculed the GOP convention as a superficial spectacle that focused on the biographies of the two major candidates -- glowingly in the case of McCain, but mocking and inaccurate in its portrayal of Obama as a liberal elitist.
Many Democrats think that McCain's best chance for victory is to demonize Obama. To underscore that, Obama cited McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, from an interview this week with The Washington Post: "This election is not about issues," Davis remarked. "This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."
Obama told the crowd: "When they say, 'This isn't about issues, it's about personalities,' what they're really saying is 'We're going to try to scare people about Barack.' We're going to say that maybe he's got Muslim connections. Or that he hangs out with radicals. Or he's not patriotic. Just making stuff up."
The Democrat warned voters to be on guard: "They're trying to make you unsure about me. Look, I'm not perfect. But the one thing that people can't deny is, for my entire adult life, I've been fighting for folks like you."
With the conventions over and both running mates in place, the new narrative of the campaign will be driven by debate performances and TV advertising. Senior aides in both camps expect the race to soon settle into a tight contest centered on a few key states, with Michigan and Ohio at the top of the list.
Obama spent much of the week in those two industrial battlegrounds, and he will return to Detroit on Monday. McCain made stops in Wisconsin, Michigan and Colorado on Friday. He will continue on to New Mexico on Saturday.
Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.