ORLANDO, FLA. — Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama defended his patriotism Tuesday, chiding rival Sen. John McCain for impugning his integrity and challenging the Republican to acknowledge that they can disagree without maligning each other.
"I have never suggested that Sen. McCain picks his positions on national security based on politics or personal ambition," Obama told 3,000 members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars here. "I have not suggested it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America's national interest. Now it's time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same."
McCain, meanwhile, highlighted his focus on energy independence in a visit to an oil production facility 150 miles south of New Orleans in the Gulf of Mexico. Known as the Genesis Spar, the Chevron facility produces 15 million cubic feet of natural gas and 10,000 barrels of oil per day.
"When I'm president there will be a whole lot more like this, not only here in the gulf but also off of our East and West coasts," he said.
McCain faulted Obama for opposing offshore drilling. He said the nation's dependence on foreign oil was hurting families coping with high energy costs while sending $700 billion overseas.
"When I'm president that's going to stop," he said. "We're going to achieve energy independence, and we're going to do it by using every resource at our disposal to get the job done, including new offshore drilling."
Speaking late Tuesday in Raleigh, N.C., Obama said McCain wasn't a supporter of offshore drilling until he met with oil industry officials this summer and raised about $1 million for his campaign from oil employees. Then, he said, McCain's tone changed. "Suddenly, 'drill here, drill now,' " Obama said, as the crowd chuckled.
"We just don't have enough oil underground to drill our way out of this problem," he said.
Obama said he would consider expanding drilling if there were "intelligent approaches." He reiterated his call for $15 billion in investment in alternative energy sources. "If we don't handle this problem now, $4 gas is going to look good," he said.
Earlier, Obama defended his foreign policy positions at the VFW conference in Orlando. McCain spoke to the group Monday, and President Bush is scheduled to speak today.
Obama said the "calamity" under Bush's leadership was too great to "use the same partisan playbook where we just challenge our opponent's patriotism to win an election."
"I will let no one question my love of this country. I love America, so do you, and so does John McCain," he said.
Noting the resignation of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Obama advocated tripling nonmilitary aid to the nation while making sure military aid is targeted to fight the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He called the border region of Pakistan and Afghanistan "the central front in the war on terrorism," where the Taliban is resurgent and Osama bin Laden is thought to be hiding.
Obama pledged that "as commander in chief, I will have no greater priority than taking out these terrorists who threaten America and finishing the job."
In response, the McCain campaign reiterated its argument that Obama lacked experience in foreign affairs. "The American people know that John McCain will hunt down terrorists wherever they are, and have a choice between strength and experience versus Barack Obama's rhetoric and theatrics," spokesman Tucker Bounds said.
Obama told the veterans that he supported the new GI Bill this year, whereas McCain did not, and pledged to modernize the Department of Veterans Affairs and to provide more medical and mental healthcare.
Bob Wonnell, 60, of Clinton, Mo., wasn't buying it. "Empty promises," said the Marine Corps machinist who served in Vietnam. "They promise us the world and they give us nothing." The registered independent said he planned to vote for McCain because of his military background.
But Charles Leighliter, 81, of Pittsburgh said he appreciated the Illinois senator's take on securing the nation. "He's going to be good for America," said the Air Force maintenance worker who served in the Philippines.
Though Leighliter said he admired McCain, he couldn't support him.
"He's a fellow veteran, and I think the world of him. But I don't think he's right for president. My personal opinion? I think he's a little too old," he said.
The day marked the first time Obama had spoken about foreign policy since he returned from a weeklong family vacation in Hawaii. In recent days, the presumptive Democratic nominee has been discussing pocketbook issues with voters in battleground states.
On Tuesday evening, Obama kicked off a three-day tour of North Carolina and Virginia, states that supported Bush in 2004 and that Obama hopes to tilt into his column in November.
"Times are tough and getting tougher. It's hard to save, it's hard to retire," Obama told about 2,600 cheering supporters at a town hall meeting at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. "This economy has fundamentally gone off course."
Mehta reported from Orlando and Raleigh, and Reston reported from New Orleans.