Obama, McCain get down to business

Trading fire over the economy and America’s wrenching housing crisis, White House contenders Barack Obama and John McCain got down to business on Monday for a gruelling, five-month slog to the election.

Obama was able to turn a full-bore offensive on his Republican adversary for the first time after his Democratic primary rival, Hillary Clinton, staged an emotional exit from the race at the weekend.

Polls show the United States economy is now the top concern of voters, ahead of the Iraq war, with the May jobless rate posting its sharpest rise in two decades, the property market in crisis and fuel prices topping $4 a gallon.

That was the backdrop to an Obama speech delivered in the Republican stronghold of North Carolina, showing he intends to give no quarter to McCain as both candidates hunt deep in the other’s territory for moderate voters.

The Illinois senator said that despite mounting home foreclosures nationwide, President George Bush had warned against political interference in the property market.

“Now, Senator McCain wants to turn Bush’s policy of ‘too little, too late’ into a policy of ‘even less, even later’,” he said, pursuing a course of tainting McCain by association with the deeply unpopular president.

“He calls himself a fiscal conservative and on the campaign trail he’s a passionate critic of government spending,” Obama said in Raleigh at the launch of a two-week campaign swing devoted to the economy.

“And yet he has no problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for big corporations and a permanent occupation of Iraq—policies that have left our children with a mountain of debt.”

McCain hit back by portraying Obama as a tax-and-spend liberal in the mould of 1970s president Jimmy Carter, when the last sustained surge in oil prices combined with high inflation to plunge the US economy into crisis.

“Senator Obama says that I’m running for Bush’s third term. It seems to me he’s running for Jimmy Carter’s second,” the Arizona senator said in an interview with NBC News.

McCain said Obama’s policies amounted to “spend spend” and the Democrat had no record to back up his soaring rhetoric.

“I have a reputation and a deserved one of reaching across the aisle and working with Democrats. Senator Obama has none of that.
He has the most liberal voting record in the Senate,” he said.

Overblown and irrelevant
The McCain campaign and Republican National Committee fastened on a Wall Street Journal report that said Jim Johnson, the business executive leading Obama’s vice-presidential hunt, had received preferential home loans.

McCain’s chief economic adviser, Doug Holtz-Eakin, said the reported loans to Johnson from Countrywide Financial—whose executives have been a frequent target of Obama vitriol on the campaign trail—raised troubling questions.

But arguing that Saturday’s Wall Street Journal article was “overblown and irrelevant”, the Obama campaign said McCain was attempting to distract attention from a paucity of ideas by his team on the housing crisis.

Asked earlier on Monday how his own hunt for a running mate was going, McCain joked that “it’s basically a Google” search at this time.

The itinerary of the 46-year-old Obama, on a historic quest to be the first African-American president, showed he intends to fight hard for centrist voters and those feeling the pinch from the economic downturn.

North Carolina has not voted for a Democratic presidential hopeful since 1976. On Tuesday Obama was to visit Missouri, which has not chosen a Democrat since voting for former president Bill Clinton in 1996.

McCain (71), a Senate veteran and Vietnam War hero, was to return to the campaign trail on Tuesday with a speech to owners of small businesses in Washington.

In the NBC interview, McCain also said his campaign was reaching out to disaffected Clinton supporters furious at her primary defeat by Obama.

“We’d obviously love to have the support and are getting some of that support,” he said, underlining Obama’s own challenge in healing the wounds of the Democrats’ bruising nominating campaign.—AFP

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