WASHINGTON — The "3 a.m." phone call barged back into the presidential campaign Wednesday, with Hillary Rodham Clinton launching a television ad that questions Republican John McCain's readiness to deal with an economic crisis.
The ad echoes one Clinton used before the Democratic primaries in Ohio and Texas to attack rival Barack Obama's readiness to answer an early morning call about a national security emergency.
The new spot, which will air across Pennsylvania before the April 22 Democratic primary, says that McCain would do nothing if faced with a mortgage crisis or the collapse of financial markets.
"John McCain just said the government shouldn't take any real action on the housing crisis; he'd let the phone keep ringing," an announcer says. "Hillary Clinton has a plan to protect our homes, create jobs. It's 3 a.m., time for a president who's ready."
Clinton's decision to target McCain indicates how the Democratic candidates may be toning down their attacks on one another so as not to weaken the party ahead of the November general election. But Clinton aides said the ad also reinforced their argument that the senator from New York is more electable than the senator from Illinois.
"The real issue is who is the best person to take on Sen. McCain," Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn said.
Campaign officials declined to cite examples of economic crises that Clinton had handled. "It's not a single moment. . . . It is a lifetime of experience," spokesman Howard Wolfson said.
McCain aides said his campaign would post a Web ad response mocking the "3 a.m." theme -- arguing that Clinton and Obama would resolve an economic crisis by raising taxes, while McCain would expand the economy.
On Wednesday, McCain's aides spent more energy going after Obama, accusing him of distorting the Arizona Republican's comments on how long U.S. troops might be required to stay in Iraq to stabilize the war-torn country.
During a January town-hall meeting in New Hampshire, McCain said he would approve of deploying troops in Iraq for 100 years "as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed." Later, the senator added that deployment would be in a peacekeeping capacity. But Obama has made the comment a linchpin of his campaign speech, saying McCain favored an open-ended commitment in Iraq.
"Barack Obama is deliberately misleading the American people," McCain strategist Steve Schmidt said. "It's absolutely dishonest. It's old-style Chicago politics."
Campaigning in Pennsylvania, Obama said that as president he would offer former Vice President Al Gore -- who has not endorsed a candidate -- an administration position that would focus on climate change, the issue that won Gore the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
"I will make a commitment that Al Gore will be at the table and play a central part in us figuring out how we solve this problem," Obama said. "He's somebody I talk to on a regular basis. I'm already consulting with him in terms of these issues, but climate change is real."
McCain also looked ahead, saying he has a list of about 20 potential vice presidential running mates. Asked about timing, McCain said he would "love to do it earlier than later" to avoid the mistakes of nominees who he said "waited until the last minute, and then it was kind of rushed."
"Sometimes you get unintended consequences," McCain said, citing President George H.W. Bush's choice of Dan Quayle, who he said had not been briefed and prepared for some of the questions.
Reston reported from Annapolis, Md., and Pensacola, Fla., and Levey from Washington. Times staff writer Scott Martelle in Los Angeles contributed to this report.