Sen. John McCain, conceding he is behind in the presidential race, cast himself Monday as the fighter America needs to face its enemies abroad and to restore the economy at home.
“The national media has written us off,” McCain told 2,500 people at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington. “Senator Obama is measuring the drapes. But they forgot to let you decide. Friends, we got them just where we want them. What America needs in this hour is a fighter.”
McCain's visit to Wilmington was his first public appearance in North Carolina in the general election – a state where his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, has campaigned five times and sharply outspent him on advertising and staffing. But McCain is being forced to play defense here and in Virginia – two upper tier Southern states that have been reliably Republican in recent presidential elections.
McCain sent his vice presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, into North Carolina last week and she is scheduled to return for a fundraiser in Greensboro Thursday. And after Monday's rally, McCain went to a residential area in Wilmington to film a campaign commercial.
The event in Wilmington drew an enthusiastic crowd that chanted “U-S-A” and “McCain,” but did not include the personal insults about Obama that recently prompted McCain to defend his opponent.
About a dozen Obama supporters outside the event got into a brief shouting match after the rally with McCain supporters on the grass. Shouts of “Nobama” were matched by “Yes We Can.”
But there were clearly doubts about Obama's personal associations.
Among those in the crowd was Celeste Avery, a 33-year-old Democrat who supported Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. She is backing McCain because she doesn't trust Obama.
“There are too many crooked ties,” said Avery, a small business owner from Wilmington. “I don't want a president who's tied to Ayers, Farrakhan and Wright.”
Avery was referring to William Ayers, a former 1960s anti-war radical- turned college professor who Obama met during his days in the Illinois state legislature, black Islamic leader Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor. Obama has disavowed some of Wright's provocative comments about race in America.
McCain drew several contrasts between himself and Obama: experience versus inexperience; fiscal restraint versus high taxes and increased spending; and withdrawal from Iraq “with honor” rather than a precipitous withdrawal.
McCain advisers said the Arizona senator was retooling his message to feature more “straight talk” about the economy.
“These are hard times,” McCain said. “Our economy is in crisis. Our savings are in danger. Our retirement is at risk. Jobs are disappearing. The cost of health care, of children's college, and gasoline are rising all the time.
McCain compared Obama to former President Herbert Hoover, a Republican who was in office when the country went into the Great Depression in 1929. He said Obama's proposal to raises taxes would be the wrong remedy for an economy in decline. (Obama has said he would only raise taxes on those who make more than $250,000 per year and would reduce taxes on the middle class.) “The last president to raise taxes and restrict as Senator Obama proposes was Herbert Hoover,” McCain said. “They say that those who won't learn the lessons from history are doomed to repeat them.”
McCain said he had known fear and doubt – an allusion to his days as a POW in Vietnam.
“I know what fear feels like,” McCain said. “It's a thief in the night. It robs your strength I felt those things before. I will never let them in again.”
Scott Gowdy, a 47-year-old engineer from Wilmington, said McCain's emphasis on the economy was what he needed for the final three weeks.
“Most of the voters think the state of the economy is caused by Republicans because there is a Republican in the White House and they are looking for change from the Democrats,” Gowdy said.
McCain said he would freeze government spending except for vital areas such as defense and Social Security, would work to help homeowners stay in their homes by having the government buy up bad mortgages and refinancing them.