Trust, taxes and ‘that Texas accent’

Times Staff Writers

With less than three weeks to go before the election, the trajectory of the presidential campaign was apparent Friday in the candidates’ schedules.

Republican John McCain was defending Florida, which every GOP White House occupant in modern times has won, but where McCain trails in recent polls. And Democrat Barack Obama was campaigning in Virginia, which has gone Republican for decades.

Both candidates pursued themes they have accented since Wednesday’s final debate.

For Obama, that meant tying the Arizona senator to an unpopular President Bush.

“Sen. McCain doesn’t look like President Bush; he doesn’t have that Texas accent like President Bush. And I don’t blame Sen. McCain for all of President Bush’s mistakes,” Obama said, addressing more than 8,000 people at the Roanoke Civic Center. “After all, he’s only voted with George Bush 90% of the time.”


For McCain, that meant trying to cast the Illinois senator as a tax-and-spend Democrat who should not be trusted to guide the nation out of its economic straits.

“Sen. Obama claims that he wants to give a tax break to the middle class, but not only did he vote for higher taxes on the middle class in the Senate, his plan gives away your tax dollars to those who don’t pay taxes,” McCain told about 6,000 supporters at Florida International University in Miami.

“That’s not a tax cut, that’s welfare,” he declared as the crowd booed loudly.

While the candidates pursued voters in big rallies, their forces arrayed for potential legal fights over the election results.

The Obama campaign called on Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey to strip the Justice Department of jurisdiction over voter fraud allegations, saying the department was coordinating with the Republican National Committee and the McCain campaign to harass voters.

That move followed news reports that the FBI has opened a voter registration investigation into the community organizing group known as ACORN. Officials with the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now have denied wrongdoing and said they had called registration officials’ attention to limited irregularities.

The Obama campaign suggested that the Justice Department’s interest in the case echoed political pressure the Bush White House put on federal prosecutors to press voter fraud cases before the 2006 election.

The pressure -- and the later removal of nine Justice Department prosecutors -- has prompted an ongoing investigation by a special prosecutor, to whom the campaign also sent its complaint.

“It appears now that the political people and the senior officials in law enforcement are working hand in glove . . . collaborating in this anti-fraud circus to create an environment of fear and intimidation,” said Obama campaign attorney Robert F. Bauer. He called it “an unholy alliance of law enforcement and the ugliest form of partisan politics.”

Obama represented ACORN in a lawsuit against the state of Illinois in the mid-1990s to force the state to implement a federal law allowing people to register to vote when they get a driver’s license. The Justice Department was on the same side of the case as ACORN. Last spring, Obama’s campaign paid more than $800,000 to a group affiliated with ACORN for get-out-the-vote operations during the primaries. The group did not register voters.

McCain did not mention ACORN on Friday, but his campaign manager, Rick Davis, said that Obama’s campaign and ACORN had a “nefarious relationship.” In an interview with conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt, Davis said ACORN had “been trying to steal 11 states blind and take us into the most corrupt election cycle that we’ve seen in the nation’s history.”

The dust-up over ACORN echoes past Republican accusations about such voter registration efforts. Voter fraud is an issue that helps galvanize the party’s base, and in many states, including the ones visited by the candidates Friday, McCain could use the help.

In his visit to a state won overwhelmingly by President Bush four years ago, but currently trending toward Obama, the Republican nominee portrayed himself as a dogged fighter on the comeback trail. He exhorted his supporters to “fight” beside him, and invoked Joe Wurzelbacher, or Joe the Plumber, the Ohio workingman who has become a celebrity.

McCain mentioned Wurzelbacher almost two dozen times at the Wednesday debate in a critique of Obama’s tax plan, which he said would hurt Joe. Wurzelbacher later told reporters he would receive a cut under Obama’s tax proposal. On Friday, McCain accused Obama of “smearing” the plumber in the days since. He was apparently referring to inquiries by independent reporters about the plumber’s unpaid taxes.

“I spoke to him this morning,” McCain told about 1,800 people in a performing arts center in Melbourne, on the Space Coast. “I want to tell you, his spirits are good. He’s a tough guy.”

While McCain was trying to shore up his standing in Florida, Obama was making his seventh trip to southwest Virginia, a Republican stronghold, in the first of several days to be spent in states that voted for Bush.

Every Virginia poll this month has shown Obama ahead in the state. McCain visited Monday and is to return today. The two campaigns together spent $3 million advertising here the first week of October. Obama outspent McCain 5 to 1, and has a sophisticated ground operation with 50 field offices, plus 19 state Democratic offices. The Democrats have added 430,000 registered voters this year.

But Obama faces a challenge among the working-class whites of Appalachia and in the state’s military-dependent areas. Automated telephone calls have sought to link Obama to 1960s radical William Ayers, and the state GOP chairman compared him to Osama bin Laden.

On Friday, Obama sought to open a new line of distinction with McCain. On the stump and in a new television ad running in key electoral states, he accused McCain of planning to finance his healthcare plan by cutting $882 billion out of Medicare, and of voting against protecting the federal health program for the elderly 40 times while in Congress.

“So what would Sen. McCain’s cuts mean for Medicare at a time when more and more Americans are relying on it?” Obama said.

“It would mean a cut of more than 20% in Medicare benefits next year. If you count on Medicare, it would mean fewer places to get care, and less freedom to choose your own doctors. You’ll pay more for your drugs, you’ll receive fewer services, and you’ll get lower-quality care.”

As the two presidential candidates clashed across the South, their running mates were talking patriotism, and trying to define who has it.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was quoted as saying Thursday at a North Carolina fundraiser that she was glad to be in the “very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation.”

Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), campaigning in New Mexico on Friday, said Palin’s remarks represented a “policy of division.”

“We are all patriotic; we all love this country,” said Biden, whose son -- like Palin’s -- is serving in Iraq.

The Republican later said her remarks had been misconstrued.


Times staff writers Cathleen Decker and Noam N. Levey contributed to this report.