Presidential Candidates Explain Their Capacity for Change

By Michael D. Shear and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 7, 2008

TERRE HAUTE, Ind., Sept. 6 -- Barack Obama and John McCain brought the battle over who is better prepared to change Washington to a pair of states that will be critical to the November election, and they sought to win over voters eager to turn the page on eight years of the Bush administration.

At a Saturday afternoon rally at the county fairgrounds here, Obama proclaimed that McCain is captive to his party and unable to provide a clean break from Bush policies, calling the GOP nominee a creature of Washington and mocking his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, for flip-flopping on earmarks.

"Now think about this. This has come from the party that has been in charge for eight years," Obama told a crowd of about 800 in a 4-H arena. "They've been running the show. So don't be fooled. . . . John McCain's party, with the help of John McCain, has been in charge."

In some of his most pointed remarks about Palin since she was named to the Republican ticket, Obama called her "a skillful politician" but added: "When you've been taking all these earmarks when it's convenient, but suddenly you're suddenly the champion anti-earmark person, that's not change. Come on! I mean, words mean something. You can't just make stuff up."

While Obama has made a message of change the cornerstone of his campaign, McCain has refused to concede that the Democratic nominee will bring it about. McCain has long touted his efforts to reach across the aisle and bring reform to Washington, and, by picking Palin, his aides think he sent a message that a McCain administration would bear little resemblance to that of the past eight years.

In accepting the Republican nomination in St. Paul on Thursday, McCain cast himself as an experienced and dedicated agent of change. He echoed that theme before thousands of flag-waving supporters in Colorado Springs on Saturday morning and urged voters to "send a team of mavericks" to Washington.

"Let me offer a little advance warning to the old big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd," McCain thundered, borrowing a line from his convention speech. "Change is coming! Change is coming!"

Palin, who has regularly drawn louder applause than McCain since being chosen his running mate, drew a roar of approval at the same event when she described McCain as a man who "doesn't run with the Washington herd," and said, "He's willing to shake things up in Washington, and that's just one more reason to take the maverick of the Senate and put him in the White House."

She also took her first public shot at her rival for the vice presidency, describing Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) as a relic of the Beltway establishment who will not push for reform.

"Senator Biden can claim many chairmanships across many, many years in Washington -- and certainly many friends in the Washington establishment," she said. "But even those admirers would not be able to call him an agent of change."

The clashes came on the same day the two candidates issued a joint statement announcing that they would briefly cease partisan hostilities to visit Ground Zero in Manhattan on Thursday to mark the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"On Thursday, we will put aside politics and come together to renew that unity, to honor the memory of each and every American who died, and to grieve with the families and friends who lost loved ones," the statement from both campaigns said.

McCain and Obama also squared off in front of a gathering of seniors Saturday morning, appearing by satellite at the AARP convention.

Obama told seniors that McCain would abandon them economically, tax health-care benefits and "gamble" with Social Security and their retirement savings.

"Job shipped overseas? Tough luck. Pension disappeared? That's the breaks. No health care? The emergency room will fix it. You're on your own," Obama said Saturday. "John McCain said that the way Social Security works is, and I quote, 'an absolute disgrace.' Wrong. . . . It's the very difference between a comfortable retirement and falling into poverty."

Obama's remarks to AARP prompted a blistering response from McCain's campaign spokesman, who accused the Democrat of employing scare tactics and falsehoods to mislead people about the Republican nominee's positions.

"John McCain has always promised to fiercely protect Social Security benefits, and Barack Obama's willingness to recklessly misinterpret the facts to scare seniors for political points is the divisive type of behavior that has ruined Washington and shows why Obama is the absolute wrong man to fix it," spokesman Tucker Bounds said.

McCain used his appearance before the group to again argue that he would be able to reach out to Democrats on Capitol Hill to tackle tough issues such as health care and the future of Social Security and Medicare.

"We have to sit down together, Republican and Democrat, and reach across the aisle, and I have that record," McCain said. "I ask you to do something and that is to say put aside your partisan rancor. My friends, I have that record and you can count on it."

Their appearances underscored the importance of seniors as the campaigns debate questions of age and experience.

Age is one of the strongest predictors of Election Day turnout, and seniors made up 16 percent of all voters in 2004. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll on the eve of the conventions, seniors made up 21 percent of those who said they were most likely to vote this year.

In that poll, 45 percent of those 65 and older supported McCain, and 41 percent backed Obama. Gallup poll data in the final week of August showed the two presidential hopefuls also running about evenly among seniors. In 2004, these older voters went for President Bush over Sen. John F. Kerry by five percentage points.

Slevin reported from Indiana, and Shear was traveling with the McCain campaign.

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