ORLANDO, FLA. — John McCain aggressively challenged Barack Obama's readiness to be president and understanding of military affairs Monday, telling a national veterans convention that the gains of America's troops in Iraq would be at risk if the Democratic candidate became president.
In a toughly worded speech to the annual gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, McCain portrayed Obama as a naif motivated by ambition.
"The hard-won gains of our troops hang in the balance" as the country weighs its choice for president, McCain said, criticizing Obama's plan to withdraw troops from Iraq within 16 months. "The lasting advantage of a peaceful and democratic ally in the heart of the Middle East could still be squandered by hasty withdrawal and arbitrary timelines."
Faulting Obama for "shifting" statements on the Iraq troop "surge," McCain said that behind his rival's positions "lies the ambition to be president."
"What's less apparent is the judgment to be commander in chief," McCain said. "And in matters of national security, good judgment will be at a premium in the term of the next president -- as we were all reminded 10 days ago by events in the nation of Georgia."
Obama, who spent the day emphasizing pocketbook issues and courting female voters in the battleground state of New Mexico, returned fire during a town-hall-style meeting in Albuquerque. He accused McCain of questioning his patriotism with the suggestion that Obama would rather lose a war than an election.
Republicans have "been doing this in every election," Obama said. "They did it to [Massachusetts Sen.] John Kerry, they did it to [former Vice President Al] Gore, they tried to do it to [former President] Clinton, they did it to [former Massachusetts Gov. Michael] Dukakis," Obama said. "That's what they do; that's their politics. They don't know how to govern; they know how to run a negative campaign."
The Illinois senator said that negative campaign tactics would not derail his candidacy.
"It's not going to work this time," he said.
"In order for us to win, we not only have to beat the attack machine, we've got to win back the trust of the American people," Obama said.
He also denounced a controversial new book by Jerome Corsi, "The Obama Nation," which rose quickly on the bestseller list despite being rife with discredited rumors about Obama's background and upbringing. He suggested that the book was part of a broader attempt by President Bush's allies and McCain's campaign to smear him.
"The same guys that brought you George Bush are now trying to bring you John McCain. They've basically got the same strategy, which is they can't win an argument on ideas, so what they're going to do is they're going to try to attack me," Obama said.
"This may not be directly affiliated with the campaign, but, you know, suddenly, magically, you got the same guy who wrote 'Unfit for Command' " -- a negative book about Kerry that came out during his 2004 race against Bush -- "he comes out with a new book saying that I'm a nut."
The day's back-and-forth illustrated the sharply different focuses of the two candidates as they head into their nominating conventions, which begin next week when the Democrats gather in Denver.
While Obama has pounded his argument that working- and middle-class Americans have suffered under Bush's economic policies, McCain has seized on the clash between Russia and Georgia to underscore the foreign policy experience gap between himself and his rival.
The Arizona senator repeatedly touted his foreign policy judgment before the veterans group in Orlando -- claiming that he had been prescient in his support of the U.S. troop surge in Iraq and in his assessment of Russia's ambitions toward the democratic nations once part of the Soviet empire.
Seeking to link the Russia-Georgia crisis to domestic concerns over gas prices, he added that a disruption in oil supplies from that region could aggravate economic hardships at home.
"In the term of the next president, skillful handling of such a crisis could be the difference between temporary hardship and far-reaching disaster," McCain said.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton described McCain's remarks as "bluster, distortions and negative attacks."
Obama focused on the economy Monday during his visit to New Mexico. Recent polls showed him edging McCain in the state, which Bush won by less than 6,000 votes in 2004.
At the Albuquerque event, where he was introduced by Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, Obama said that McCain's economic policies represented a continuation of the Bush administration.
"People's economic fortunes have been reversed," he said. "Unless you are in the top one-tenth of 1% in this country, you are not better off than you were four years ago or eight years ago."
Earlier Monday, Obama held an economic round table with more than three dozen women at the Albuquerque Library, where he emphasized that he was raised by a single mother who at times turned to food stamps to get by.
"It's because of that experience that when I hear that women are being treated unfairly in the workplace, where there's injustice and we're not seeing the basic principle of equal pay for equal work . . . I get mad, and I get frustrated," Obama said.
He pledged to fight for equal pay, seven days of paid sick leave annually, an expansion of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the earned income tax credit and child-care credits.