Healthcare remark gets full treatment

Mehta and Reston are Times staff writers.

Barack Obama on Tuesday seized on comments made by a top aide to rival John McCain about the Republican’s healthcare plan, saying they amounted to a different kind of “October surprise.”

“This morning, we were offered a stunning bit of straight talk . . . from his top economic advisor, who actually said that the health insurance people currently get from their employer is, and I quote, ‘way better’ than the healthcare they’d be getting if John McCain were president,” Obama told 8,000 supporters crammed into an arena at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and 12,000 standing outside.

The Democratic candidate was referring to comments made by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was asked on CNNMoney .com about an element of McCain’s healthcare plan. McCain calls for eliminating tax breaks on employer-sponsored healthcare benefits but wants to give taxpayers healthcare tax credits -- $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families -- to buy insurance.

McCain argues that his plan would reduce what Americans spend on healthcare by creating more competition for insurance plans.

But independent analysts have concluded that McCain’s plan would prompt younger workers to abandon employer-sponsored plans to find less expensive coverage -- leaving employers with a pool of older, less healthy workers, potentially prompting them to drop coverage completely.


Holtz-Eakin, a senior McCain advisor, was asked about young workers fleeing employer plans. “Why would they leave?” he said. “What they are getting from their employer is way better than what they could get with the credit.”

Obama said the remarks proved that the Republican’s plan was fatally flawed.

“This is the point I’ve been making since Sen. McCain unveiled his plan. It took until the last seven days of this election for his campaign to finally admit the truth, but better late than never,” Obama said.

Holtz-Eakin accused the Obama campaign of distorting his words.

“My response was that, obviously, if they had better coverage, they would not change,” Holtz-Eakin said. “The Obama campaign deliberately took the quote out of context. This continues their disgraceful campaign.”

Both candidates began their day in Pennsylvania. In Hershey, McCain continued to portray the Democrat as presumptuous, invoking the 30-minute commercial the Obama campaign will run on several networks tonight, which a campaign source said would have a live component.

“I guess I’m old-fashioned about these things: I prefer to let the voters weigh in before presuming the outcome,” McCain told a raucous crowd of about 9,000. “What America needs now is someone who will finish the race before starting the victory lap . . . someone who will fight to the end, not for himself but for his country.”

McCain and running mate Sarah Palin renewed their criticisms of Obama’s plan to phase out President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy. Palin referred to Obama as “Barack the wealth-spreader,” while McCain dubbed him “redistributionist in chief.”

McCain and Obama campaigned about 80 miles apart on a cold, wet morning. Polls show Obama with double-digit leads in Pennsylvania, which has 21 electoral votes, but both parties say they think the race is much tighter.

Obama rallied supporters in the Philadelphia suburb of Chester, telling 9,000 people gathered in a muddy college quad that although McCain was trying to distance himself from Bush, he would expand his economic policies.

“John McCain has ridden shotgun as George Bush has driven our economy toward a cliff, and now he wants to take the wheel and step on the gas,” he said. “When it comes to the issue of taxes, saying that John McCain is running for a third Bush term isn’t being fair to George Bush.”

Both candidates later headed to states Bush won.

After visiting Harrisonburg, Obama held a nighttime rally at a ballpark in Norfolk, where he continued to paint McCain as a Bush clone.

“The last thing we need is four more years of the tired, old, worn-out theory of John McCain and George Bush, a theory that says we should give more and more to billionaires and big corporations and CEOs, and hope that prosperity trickles down on everyone else,” he told a crowd of 22,000.

McCain headed to Fayetteville, N.C., near Pope Air Force Base and Ft. Bragg, where Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge broadened the rhetoric beyond economic issues to national security, perhaps previewing McCain’s national security roundtable today in Tampa, Fla.

“You cannot be secure unless you’re prosperous, and you cannot prosper unless you’re secure,” Ridge told a crowd of 8,600. “There should be no doubt in anybody’s mind if you believe that there’s only one real choice for commander in chief of the United States.”

Although the candidates and campaigns stuck to their official talking points, two McCain surrogates went off message.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in a fundraising e-mail for Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), nearly predicted an Obama victory. And Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty told a radio station there that it would be tough for McCain to win the state.

Political director Mike DuHaime told reporters that the campaign’s internal polls showed the race tightening, with Republicans consolidating behind McCain and “independents moving nicely.”

“It’s going to be close down to the wire,” he said.