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Candidates duke it out in the West

McCain and Obama trade barbs in the swing state of New Mexico. Obama also campaigns in Nevada.

October 26, 2008|Bob Drogin and Seema Mehta | Drogin and Mehta are Times staff writers.

MESILLA, N.M., — John McCain and Barack Obama brought their dueling presidential campaigns to the mesas and mountains of New Mexico on Saturday, trading mocking jibes and sharp new attacks in the hotly contested state.

With Obama also campaigning in Nevada, it was a rare day in which both candidates paid heed to the West instead of the more populous battleground states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, that have drawn the most attention and resources this year.

McCain, the four-term senator from neighboring Arizona, should have enjoyed a home court advantage. But despite crisp, clear skies on a weekend morning, fewer than 1,000 supporters came out to cheer the Republican nominee in a rally at the New Mexico State Fair Grounds in Albuquerque.

Later, McCain spent two hours driving through desolate, dry ranchland along the Mexican border to address a similar-size crowd on the Old West plaza in Mesilla, near Las Cruces. Not far away, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) drew about 2,600 people to a rally for Obama in Sunland Park, according to local police.

Obama rejoined the campaign trail after taking Friday off to visit his grandmother, who is gravely ill, in Hawaii.

Speaking to 11,000 people at the University of Nevada, Reno, the Illinois senator sharpened his usual critique of McCain, comparing him to President Bush in unflattering terms nearly two dozen times. At times, Obama laughed as he described McCain's efforts to distance himself from the unpopular president.

"John McCain is so opposed to George Bush's policies that he voted with him 90% of the time for the first eight years," Obama said. "That's right, he decided to really stick it to George Bush -- 10% of the time."

"Well, let's be clear," Obama added. "John McCain attacking George Bush for his out-of-hand economic policy is like Dick Cheney attacking George Bush for his go-it-alone foreign policy. . . . It's like Tonto getting mad at the Lone Ranger."

McCain, speaking in sun-washed Mesilla, derided Obama's lack of appreciation for Latino concerns.

"My friends, Sen. Obama has never been south of our border," McCain said. "He doesn't know these issues. I know them. . . . I'm proud to be a senator from the West."

Wrong, said Tommy Vietor, an Obama spokesman. The Democrat visited Mexico while in college, he said.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will visit Nevada today to help Obama's campaign reach out to Latino voters, a fast-growing and heavily Democratic group that also may help decide New Mexico and Colorado.

Obama appeared in Albuquerque late Saturday, where 35,000 supporters gathered on Johnson Field at the University of New Mexico. At least 10,000 more waited outside the gates. The nighttime rally, hours after McCain visited the same city, was clearly aimed at Latinos, who make up 40% of New Mexico's population and 30% of its electorate.

Obama urged Latinos to vote their numbers. "Latino community, you hold this election in your hands. You can be the swing vote all across the country."

Introduced by Gov. Bill Richardson and comedian George Lopez, Obama spoke about immigration reform, a topic that has gone by the wayside on the campaign trail. He slammed McCain for initially supporting comprehensive immigration reform and then later saying he wouldn't vote for it.

"Sen. McCain used to buck his party by fighting for immigration reform -- and I admired him for it. But when he was running for his party's nomination, he changed his tune," Obama said. "He said that he wouldn't support his own legislation if it came up for a vote. And when it was time to write his party's platform, comprehensive immigration reform never made it in.

"So you've got to ask yourself, if Sen. McCain won't stand up to the opponents of reform at his own convention . . . how can you trust him to make sure we finally solve this problem instead of using it as a wedge issue?"

As elsewhere, McCain extolled the virtues of Joe the Plumber and derided Obama's comment to the Ohio tradesman that higher taxes for the richest Americans would help "spread the wealth around."

McCain claims that Obama seeks to raise taxes on small-business owners like plumbers, a charge the Democrat denies. But it seems that McCain and his surrogates have stretched the definition of a small-business owner to include some who own large businesses.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who often travels with the candidate, introduced McCain's wife, Cindy, to an outdoor rally in Durango, Colo., on Friday afternoon as "a great small-business woman."

Cindy McCain heads Hensley & Co., one of America's largest beer distributorships, which she inherited from her father. She reported taxable personal income last year of $6.1 million, and is believed to be worth about $100 million.

She almost certainly would pay higher taxes under Obama's proposals. But Sen. Graham did not repeat the comment Saturday.


Bob Drogin reporting from mesilla, n.m.

Seema Mehta reporting from albuquerque

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