PHOENIX — John McCain told a veterans group Tuesday that Barack Obama's comments about U.S. leadership around the globe invite "more trouble, violence and aggression."
Campaigning in Kansas City, Mo., Obama slammed McCain's economic agenda, saying the Arizona senator was "not promising to do anything different than George Bush did."
The day's back-and-forth captured efforts by each White House hopeful to play to his political strengths. Polls show voters put more faith in McCain on foreign policy but favor Obama on the economy.
McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, also accused his Democratic rival of distorting his policy proposals, including McCain's plan to give sick and wounded veterans the option of seeking medical care outside the government's Veterans Affairs facilities.
McCain insisted that the arrangement would expand, not curtail, existing VA services. Obama and some veterans have charged that the access plan would effectively privatize the VA system and chiefly benefit the wealthy.
"I don't expect this will deter the Obama campaign from misrepresenting my proposals, but lest there be any doubt, you have my pledge: My reforms would not force anyone to go to a non-VA facility and do not signal privatization of the VA," McCain told the 90th national convention of the American Legion.
Speaking to workers at an American Airlines facility in Kansas City where hundreds could soon be laid off, Obama mocked McCain's upbeat remarks about the U.S. economy in recent months, saying they show that he is out of touch.
"I don't think he realizes what ordinary American families are going through," Obama said. "I don't think the Bush administration understands what ordinary American families are going through. But I do. And that's why I'm running for president of the United States of America -- [to] move this country in a new direction."
Obama cited figures showing that average family incomes had increased under President Clinton and declined under President Bush. Poverty has worsened, home foreclosures are on the rise, and Americans are finding health coverage increasingly difficult to afford, he said. Yet McCain, he said, offers no significant change from Bush's economic policies.
"So if you think that the last eight years have been good, then you need to go ahead and vote for him," Obama told the crowd.
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said McCain had stood up to wasteful spending under Bush, while Obama "wants to further a culture of wasteful spending in Washington -- and, in fact, wants to exacerbate it with billions and billions in new spending."
"That's the wrong prescription for an American economy that's struggling," he said.
In Phoenix, McCain told the veterans that Obama had "left an important point unclear" when he gave a speech in Berlin last month to a crowd of 200,000. Obama, McCain recalled, said the end of the Cold War proved that no challenge was "too great for a world that stands as one."
"The Cold War ended not because the world stood as one," McCain said, "but because the great democracies came together, bound together by sustained and decisive American leadership." McCain corrected himself after saying "divisive" instead of "decisive."
McCain also challenged Obama's comments earlier this month about Russia's invasion of neighboring Georgia. The Illinois senator said that the United States and its allies must send a message to Moscow that it can't charge into countries, adding that it "helps if America leads by example on that point."
"If I catch Sen. Obama's drift," McCain said, "then our failure to lead by example was the liberation of Iraq. And if he really thinks that by liberating Iraq from a dangerous tyrant, America somehow set a bad example that invited Russia to invade a small, peaceful and democratic nation, then he should state it outright -- because that is a debate I welcome."
Confusion "about such questions only invites more trouble, violence and aggression," McCain said.
In response, Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan released a statement saying: "The 'confusion' here is between John McCain rhetoric that no one's love of country should be questioned and the reality of his campaign's daily, false, personal and detestable attacks on Sen. Obama."
Finnegan reported from Kansas City, Drogin from Phoenix.