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Obama courts Bush voters; McCain steps up criticism

Times Staff Writers

Barack Obama campaigned deep in Republican strongholds in southwest Missouri on Wednesday, stressing economic themes to woo fence-sitters and scoffing at rival John McCain for “tired old answers.”

Obama’s forays into conservative-dominated districts were designed to highlight his economic offensive against McCain, but the Missouri thrust was also carefully aimed at easing swing-state voters’ qualms about the Illinois senator’s background and political resume.

“We can’t afford to have eight more years of what we’ve been having,” Obama told a crowd of 1,500 people crowded into the gym of Glendale High School in downtown Springfield.

Departing from prepared speeches that referred to McCain only as “my opponent,” Obama lit into the Arizona Republican senator by name several times, responding to McCain’s recent toughened broadsides against him on the stump and in campaign ads.

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Obama repeatedly linked McCain with President Bush, who handily won southwest Missouri counties in the 2000 and 2004 elections but whose popularity has eroded, Democratic Party operatives here say, because of the tanking national economy and the drawn-out war in Iraq.

“John McCain believes we’re on the right track. He’s said our economy has made great progress these past eight years,” Obama said, drawing a wave of laughter. “He’s embraced the Bush economic policies and promises to continue them.”

Even as he castigated McCain, Obama also took care to urge Missouri voters to spurn Internet rumors and intensifying GOP assaults that have taken a toll on his poll ratings.

“The only way they figure they’re going to win this election is if they make you scared of me,” Obama later told a crowd of 1,200 in a college recreation center in the small central Missouri town of Rolla. “ ‘He’s new. He doesn’t look like the other presidents on the dollar bills. He’s got a funny name. . . .’ The argument is that I’m too risky.”

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The real risk, Obama insisted, is “doing the same things we’ve done the last eight years.” He implored the Rolla crowd: “Don’t let them scare you.”

Obama aides said his appeals were part of the campaign’s calibrated effort to take on misinformation and GOP broadsides even in conservative enclaves that might otherwise be written off.

“He’s here to talk about the economy, but he’s also here to address people’s concerns about him,” said Jen Psaki, a campaign spokeswoman. “These are districts where the vote was 65% to 35% for Bush in the last two elections. It shows we intend to be competitive in places where Democrats have tended to shy away from in the past.”

In 2004, Sen. John F. Kerry’s presidential campaign made a strong display of committing campaign cash and staffers to Missouri but in the end did not make a concerted final push, Obama advisors said -- a mistake they insisted Obama would not repeat.

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McCain also stopped in Missouri on Wednesday, briefly, for an evening fundraiser in Kansas City. Earlier, before workers at a machine maintenance company in suburban Denver, McCain accused Obama of being an incessant tax-raiser.

“He’s proposed tax increases on income taxes, capital gains, dividend taxes -- pretty much anything you can tax, he wants to tax more,” McCain said. “Raising taxes in a bad economy is about the worst thing you can do, because it could kill more jobs.”

McCain also attacked Obama as a typical politician who speaks eloquently but doesn’t follow through on his promises.

“What he says and what he does are often two different things,” McCain told a crowd of several hundred employees at Wagner Equipment Co. He added later: “We don’t need another politician in Washington that puts self-interest and political expedience ahead of problem-solving.”

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steve.braun@latimes.com

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

Braun reported from Missouri and Riccardi from Colorado.

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