Tickets stake out the same territory

Times Staff Writers

The two-month push to election day opened Friday with the presidential candidates scouring for votes in key electoral states and heatedly debating whether personal character or economic concerns would determine the next president.

John McCain and Sarah Palin, the Republican team, argued that they represented the surest route to reform. Campaigning in Wisconsin and later in Michigan on the first day of their post-convention swing, McCain praised Palin as an enemy of government as usual.

On a downtown street here lined in red, white and blue bunting, McCain said: “Isn’t this the most marvelous running mate in the history of this nation? Sarah Palin: She’s magnificent!


“I can’t wait to introduce her to Washington, D.C., and the pork-barrelers and the lobbyists and all the special interests whose day is done, my friends,” McCain added, to the cheers of thousands.

Democrat Barack Obama blasted the Republican candidates for what he said was their neglect of the economy, which has consistently been cited by voters as their top concern this year. His running mate, Joe Biden, campaigning in southeast Pennsylvania while Obama hewed a bit to the north in Duryea, echoed the theme.

“You would think that George Bush and his potential Republican successor, John McCain, would be spending a lot of time worrying about the economy and all these jobs that are being lost on their watch,” said Obama, wrapping Friday’s release of a grim jobs report into his criticism.

“But if you watched the Republican National Convention over the past three days, you wouldn’t know that we have the highest unemployment rate in five years, because they didn’t say a thing about what is going on with the middle class.”

The day marked the formal opening of the general-election campaign, a 60-day spurt that will be spent largely in the Midwestern and industrial Eastern venues where the candidates fanned out Friday. With both national conventions now over and the lineups set, the contours of the fall campaign were evident.

Essentially, the candidates are arguing flip sides of the same coin: McCain that his and Palin’s backgrounds give them greater understanding of Americans’ economic stresses; Obama that the economic stresses are second nature to him because he was raised by a single mother with rocky finances. Biden, like Obama, weighs in with his scrappy Scranton, Pa., beginnings.


For McCain, who spent months arguing that experience should vault him to the White House, the convention in St. Paul, Minn., marked a pivot toward reform as a prime message, with he and Palin as dual messengers. Each has lauded the other for populist moves, sometimes made against the wishes of their party, although neither has explained explicitly how their promise of government reform would lead to economic recovery.

As she did on Friday, Alaska Gov. Palin has used McCain’s imprisonment in Vietnam to humanize the candidate and emphasize his service to country. McCain has touted such Palin actions as laying off the chef for her governor’s mansion, and on Friday he praised her husband in terms meant to strike a chord with the audience: “what a guy, a commercial fisherman, a union member and a devoted father.”

“We’re going to go across the small towns . . . and we’re going to give them hope, and we’re going to give them confidence, and we are going to bring about change in Washington, D.C., and we’ll not talk about it, but we’ll do something about it,” McCain said.

Obama, while spending some time offering his life’s narrative, kept most of his focus on voters themselves, talking about his plans to create jobs and fix the economy. The Democratic convention was a specifics-laden appeal to those voters who have been most skeptical of him and in whose hands the election may rest. They are, he has told them, among those whose taxes would be cut under his presidency.

On Friday, he continued his effort to tie McCain to President Bush and to convince voters that the sagging economy would not improve under the Arizona senator.

At a glass factory in the scruffy hills of northeastern Pennsylvania, Obama described the struggles he said he had seen during his presidential campaign.


“Everywhere you go, people are working harder and harder just to get by,” the Illinois senator said.

“People just don’t have as much money at the same time as the cost for everything from gas to food to healthcare have all skyrocketed.”

Obama ridiculed a comment by McCain’s campaign manager that the election would revolve more around personality than issues.

“This is not about personalities,” he said. “If you want it to be about personalities, we’ll go out for a beer sometime and we’ll talk. But you don’t have time. You’d rather spend it with your family. What you do want to know is that you’ll have someone who is fighting for you.”

Both the Obama and McCain campaigns Friday indulged in the stuff of fall campaigns: diners, movie theater marquees bearing welcome messages, thousands of people angling for a view. And food: Obama dived into a slice of banana cream pie in Wyoming, Pa.

Palin, showing the flair for imagery that has marked her brief national career, underscored her Alaska roots with her selection at a Cedarburg, Wis., store -- “moosetracks” ice cream in a waffle cone.


The newest member of a major-party ticket, Palin, was the attention-getter Friday.

She repeated much of her convention speech at events in Cedarburg and Sterling Heights, Mich., directly making a pitch that McCain has sometimes avoided: that his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam are among his qualifications to be president.

She smacked at Obama as a man whose “high-flown speechmaking” masked an absence of judgment.

She took no questions and read off prepared remarks.

The Republican ticket was intent on introducing Palin in the best possible terms, even if they occasionally skated past reality. McCain and Palin have repeatedly claimed that Palin opposed the infamous “bridge to nowhere”; actually, she backed it while running for governor but later, when it was under fire, killed it off.

Both have cited her as a foe of earmarks, though she actively sought such budgetary benefits for Alaska.

On Friday, McCain exaggerated Palin’s actions regarding the state airplane. In her speeches, she has said she put the plane up for sale on EBay, carefully omitting that it didn’t sell there and was sold, at a loss, through a plane broker. McCain’s version was that “she took the luxury jet that was acquired by her predecessor and sold it on EBay. And made a profit!”

The details did not matter to many of the voters Friday who streamed to see Palin. Julie Ness, a 47-year-old mother of three from West Bend, Wis., said she hadn’t tuned in to the race until McCain selected Palin.


She said she loved the oft-repeated lines about the bridge and the plane because the comments made Palin “believable.”

“She sounds like she’s actually for the people, not for the position or the money or whatever other status reason they do it for,” Ness said.


Reston reported from Wisconsin and Michigan, Levey from Pennsylvania. Times staff writer Cathleen Decker contributed to this report.