McCain goes small in Ohio

Times Staff Writer

With the media spotlight on Barack Obama’s speech to a crowd of thousands in Berlin, John McCain wooed voters -- and ribbed his rival -- Thursday in more intimate settings in the pivotal campaign state of Ohio.

McCain poked fun at Obama’s foreign trip after a lunch of bratwurst in Columbus’ German Village, where he listened to the concerns of a small group of business owners about fuel costs and the economic slowdown.

Thursday evening, he made a point of noting that Obama was skipping a “presidential town hall” here focused on cancer issues, which was hosted by cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong.

“You’ve billed this event as a presidential town hall, and I sincerely hope that the next president is here this evening,” McCain told the audience at Ohio State University.

“My opponent, of course, is traveling in Europe, and tomorrow his tour takes him to France. In a scene that Lance would recognize, a throng of adoring fans awaits Sen. Obama in Paris -- and that’s just the American press.”


McCain’s decision to attend the town hall was in many ways a risky one. His three bouts of a dangerous form of skin cancer known as melanoma have invited frequent questions about his health on the campaign trail, though his doctors have pronounced him cancer-free. Perhaps out of sensitivity to those concerns, McCain’s prepared remarks did not include a word about his fight with disease.

But not long into his introduction, McCain abandoned his text and told his audience -- many of them cancer survivors -- about his own experience.

“I was in a battle with melanoma,” McCain said. “And I know. . . somewhat, at least to a small degree, how tough that battle can be.

“And yes, I’ve become a fanatic. Yes, I admit it,” McCain continued. “When I see a woman with a child in the sun, I go over and say ‘Get sunscreen on that child, please.’ ”

He drew applause when he said he’d quit smoking 29 years ago after being “a two-pack-a-day smoker.”

He also criticized the power of the tobacco lobbyists in Washington -- though one of his chief advisors has lobbied for a tobacco company.

McCain’s appearance at the summit was widely panned by liberal groups that have criticized his health insurance plan, which some independent analysts say could make it more difficult for people with health problems to find coverage.

The Arizona senator proposes moving away from employer-based health insurance programs to a system in which individuals purchase their own insurance, with the aid of a $5,000 tax credit for each family. McCain argues that will increase choice and competition.

But opponents say the system might impose hardships on cancer survivors, for example, because insurance companies might balk at covering people with preexisting conditions.

Armstrong, delivering the closing remarks at the event, emphasized that he was not endorsing a candidate, although he had tough words for Obama.

“We know that Sen. McCain’s opponent, Sen. Obama, could not be here because he’s overseas, but he does not get a pass,” Armstrong said. “We fully expect Sen. Obama to talk about the very same issues, and we expect him to lay out his plan and his agenda.”