Obama focuses on McCain during Florida stop

Barack Obama sounded like the Democratic presidential nominee on a visit to the November election battleground of Florida on Wednesday, praising rival Hillary Clinton and targeting Republican foe John McCain.

Clinton also visited Florida, where she pressed ahead with her uphill Democratic race and demanded the state’s delegates be seated at the August nominating convention despite a dispute with the national party.

The duelling visits came the day after split decisions in Oregon and Kentucky gave Obama a majority of pledged delegates won in the lengthy state-by-state nomination fight with Clinton — a milestone he hopes marks a turning point in their battle for the right to face McCain in November.

”We are at the threshold of being able to obtain this nomination,” Obama told a rally in Tampa, Florida.

Obama hopes the pledged-delegate milestone persuades more undecided superdelegates — party officials who can back any candidate — to move his way.

An MSNBC count gives him 1 961 total delegates to Clinton’s 1 783, leaving him 65 short of the 2 026 needed to win the nomination at the Democratic Party’s August convention.

A Reuters/Zogby poll showed Obama opening an eight-point national lead on McCain as the two geared up for their likely battle for the White House.

Clinton, a New York senator and former first lady, continued her fight to seat delegates from Michigan and Florida, where she won nominating contests that were not recognised by the national party.

Seating the delegates from those two contests at the convention would narrow Obama’s lead in the delegate chase and bolster Clinton’s argument to superdelegates.

”The people who voted did nothing wrong and it would be wrong to punish you,” Clinton said in Boca Raton, Florida. ”The rules clearly state we can count all these votes and seat all these delegates if we so choose.”

At a town hall-style meeting later in Kissimmee, Obama said he wanted the Florida delegation seated as well.

”My hope is in a couple weeks time that we’ve won some more elections, we’ve won some more delegates, we’ve gotten the Florida delegation seated so that they’re [going to] be at the convention,” he said. ”Then we’re going to have a convention in August. And I’m going to accept that nomination.”

Obama and Clinton did not campaign in Florida before the January vote. They signed pledges not to appear publicly in either Florida or Michigan because the states moved up the dates of the contests without national party approval.

Praise for Clinton

Obama, making his first visit to Florida since signing the pledge, praised Clinton as he tried to heal any lingering Democratic wounds from their long nominating fight.

”Senator Clinton has run an outstanding campaign and she deserves our admiration and our respect,” he said. ”She has broken through barriers and will open up opportunity for a lot of people, including my two young daughters.”

The Illinois senator also took several shots at McCain, criticising the influence of lobbyists in his campaign and calling him a new version of President George Bush.

Ten years ago, he said, McCain introduced a Bill to ban candidates from paying registered lobbyists. ”John McCain then would be pretty disappointed with John McCain now, because he hired some of the biggest lobbyists in Washington to run his campaign,” he said.

McCain, meanwhile, will spend time this weekend with three politicians who have been mentioned by Republicans as possible vice-presidential running mates.

A McCain campaign official said the Arizona senator will play host to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Florida Governor Charlie Crist and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal at his ranch in Sedona, Arizona. A total of 10 couples were invited.

Clinton has promised to stay in the race until voting ends on June 3, but Obama could reach the number needed to clinch the nomination with superdelegate endorsements before then.

Three more contests remain — Puerto Rico on June 1 and Montana and South Dakota on June 3 — with a combined 86 delegates at stake. About 200 superdelegates are uncommitted.

Each candidate picked up one superdelegate endorsement on Wednesday. Obama also earned the endorsement of the United Mine Workers, which represents more than 100 000 active workers.

The Reuters/Zogby poll showed Clinton running even with McCain nationally at 43% each. — Reuters

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