Trying to put an end to a week’s worth of sniping between the presidential candidates about the issue of race in the contest, Barack Obama said Saturday that John McCain’s campaign was not racist, only cynical in encouraging voter concerns about his candidacy.
“In no way do I think that John McCain’s campaign is racist,” Obama said during a morning news conference at a Cape Canaveral, Fla., hotel. “I think they’re being cynical. I think they want to distract people from talking about real issues.”
The McCain camp accused Obama last week of playing “the race card” when he told rural crowds in Missouri that Republicans would use scare tactics and highlight that Obama, the first black man with a shot at the presidency, does not look like “all those presidents on the dollar bills.”
Obama’s comment came after the McCain campaign spent a week belittling the Democrat’s trip overseas and running an ad comparing the Illinois senator’s celebrity with that of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, suggesting he is all style and no substance.
Obama said Saturday that McCain’s camp had twisted his efforts to highlight the unusual personal features of his candidacy. “I don’t come out of central casting when it comes to presidential races for a whole range of reasons,” he said. “I’m young, I’m new to the national scene, my name is Barack Obama, I’m African American, I was born in Hawaii, I spent time in Indonesia. I don’t have the typical biography of a presidential candidate.”
The two campaigns even volleyed over whether Obama had earlier issued a “retraction,” as McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds insisted Saturday. Obama aides said the Democratic candidate had never aimed his remarks at McCain in the first place.
Either way, Republicans are “moving on,” Bounds said.
Obama touched on other issues during the wide-ranging news conference.
After first opposing offshore oil drilling, he said he would consider limited drilling off the coast of Florida and in other coastal areas as part of a comprehensive congressional package aimed at fuel-efficient vehicles and alternative energy sources.
One day after a group of five Democrats and five Republicans in the Senate introduced an energy bill that offered hope of ending a long impasse, Obama said he might support a “genuine bipartisan compromise where I have to accept some things I don’t like in order to get energy independence.”
He also opened up about conversations he had last week with Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben S. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson about the economy.
Obama said he praised both men for seizing the initiative during the housing foreclosure crisis by shoring up struggling lending houses and, most recently, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
He also expressed concern that the government’s financial moves to bolster the two struggling mortgage giants do not “end up being a big bailout for shareholders and managers at the expense of American taxpayers.”
Later, speaking to a crowd of 1,300 during a town-hall meeting at the Titusville campus of Brevard Community College, Obama needled McCain over his plan to use more corporate tax breaks to contend with the nation’s economic ills.
Obama repeated controversial quotes by McCain’s recently departed top financial advisor, former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), suggesting that the nation’s economic downturn is illusory.
“John McCain’s chief financial advisor said this was just a ‘mental recession,’ ” Obama said with a chuckle. “That all your fears of losing your jobs is just in your head. Well, I just want to ask you a simple question: Are you better off now than you were four or eight years ago?”
That was a paraphrase of the question Ronald Reagan famously asked in 1980, which was widely considered to have captured voter unhappiness with President Carter and congressional Democrats -- and helped elect the former California governor to the White House.
Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi in Washington contributed to this report.