BEREA, OHIO — They've bickered over war and peace, taxes and healthcare. Now Barack Obama and John McCain are at odds over an issue not quite so weighty: the tire gauge.
In a town hall-style meeting here, Obama defended his suggestion that motorists should properly inflate their car tires to improve gas mileage and cut oil consumption.
Republican John McCain has mocked the idea, with one of his aides handing out tire gauges emblazoned with the words "Obama's Energy Plan" aboard his campaign plane.
Obama pushed back hard Tuesday, accusing his rival's campaign of lying about the scope of his energy plan.
The Democratic candidate has also called for developing renewable fuels, curbing dependence on foreign oil and increasing production of plug-in hybrid cars.
"So now the Republicans are going around -- this is the kind of thing they do, I don't understand it -- they're going around sending, like, little tire gauges, making fun of this idea as if this is Barack Obama's energy plan," he said.
"Now, two points: One, they know they're lying about what my energy plan is. But the other thing is, they're making fun of a step that every expert says would absolutely reduce our oil consumption by 3% to 4%. It's like these guys take pride in being ignorant, you know? They think it's funny that they're making fun of something that is actually true."
The Illinois senator made two stops in this crucial swing state on a week in which he is making energy a focus. He is keeping an abbreviated schedule this week. On Friday, he is to leave for a weeklong vacation in Hawaii, where he spent much of his boyhood.
Often cool on the stump, Obama struck a combative note when he told the 2,700 people who came to see him here that McCain had unfairly characterized his position. Ridiculing him over tire gauges, Obama said, is shallow campaigning -- on the order of McCain's much-publicized TV ad likening Obama to celebrities Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
"They need to do their homework," Obama said. "Because this is serious business. Instead of running ads about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, they should go talk to some energy experts and actually make a difference."
Explaining how he came to recommend correct tire inflation, Obama said he was asked at a campaign stop what people can do on their own to use energy more efficiently.
"So I told him something simple," he said. "I said, 'You know what? You can inflate your tires to the proper levels.' "
At the July 30 event, Obama said that by keeping their cars tuned and tires inflated, Americans would save as much oil as could be found in the expanded drilling that the Arizona senator touts.
That contention touched off the McCain campaign attack.
Although the McCain campaign has lampooned Obama, McCain himself thinks tire inflation has merit. On Tuesday, he said, "I agree with the American Automobile Assn.: We should all inflate our tires."
A spokesman for McCain later explained that McCain believes that car maintenance is important, but that it is not a substitute for more oil drilling.
Other prominent Republicans have also advocated tire inflation as a means of conserving oil. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, at a climate conference in Florida in June, advocated keeping tires inflated to lower consumption.
The McCain campaign, however, has continued to needle Obama, urging him Tuesday to insist that Congress return to vote on an energy package: "Instead of calling on his party's leadership to return to Congress and carve out an 'all of the above' approach to America's energy crisis, Barack Obama would rather tell commuters to inflate their car tires."
Obama also sought Tuesday to link McCain to the unpopular vice president, Dick Cheney. He invoked an energy task force Cheney headed early in the Bush administration's first term.
Cheney refused to make public a list of groups that he consulted, but media reports later showed his office met with far more energy industry representatives than environmentalists.
"You remember George Bush's energy policy, which was basically to turn to Dick Cheney and say, 'Here, Dick. Do something with this'?" Obama said. "And so Dick, in his inestimable wisdom, decided he'd meet with the renewable energy groups once, and then he'd meet with the oil and gas companies 40 times. And so not surprisingly, the laws he came up with were very good for the oil and gas companies, but they weren't so good for you.
"Sen. McCain has taken a page out of the Bush-Cheney playbook. He's offered a plan with no significant investments in alternative energy."
The Republican National Committee suggested that Obama was being hypocritical; it pointed out that he voted for a 2005 energy bill backed by the president.
During the Democratic primary fight, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York leveled much the same charge against Obama. She criticized him for voting for legislation that she described as "Dick Cheney's energy bill." Clinton voted against the bill.
Her campaign said the bill was loaded with subsidies and perks for the oil industry.
The Obama campaign sought to defend that 2005 vote. Aides released research showing that the bill raised taxes on the oil industry and circulated transcripts of interviews in which Obama said he supported the bill because it invested in clean, alternative energy.