FLINT, MICH. — Barack Obama and John McCain accused each other of flip-flopping Monday, with Obama questioning the forthrightness of the Republican presidential ticket and McCain challenging the Democrat's toughness on defense.
Obama ridiculed his opponents' claim that they represent the best hope for change -- something voters say they desperately want. He accused McCain and his GOP running mate, Sarah Palin, of attempting to "repackage themselves" out of political necessity. Taking aim at Palin, Obama challenged the Alaska governor's assertion that she opposed the "bridge to nowhere," a project that has become a symbol of government pork and, lately, of Palin's willingness to buck the political establishment.
On Monday, the McCain campaign launched a television ad that said Palin stopped the $400-million bridge between Ketchikan and its island airport. But Palin had spoken of the project in supportive terms while running for governor in 2006, and after the bridge was canceled, kept the money for other Alaska programs.
"She was for it until everyone started raising a fuss about it," said Obama, standing against a backdrop of hybrid SUVs in this economically hard-pressed automotive city. "You can't just make stuff up. You can't just re-create yourself. You can't just reinvent yourself. The American people aren't stupid. What they're looking for is someone who has been consistently calling for change."
McCain, campaigning in Missouri, seized on comments Obama had made Sunday in an interview on ABC. Asked on "This Week" to name changes he planned as president that would be unpopular with his party, the Illinois senator responded by calling for a bigger military. McCain said that statement was at odds with comments Obama had made last year while campaigning for the Democratic nomination, when he vowed to "cut investments in unproven missile defense systems."
"My friends, we have found out in recent days that this is a more dangerous world than we had thought," McCain said in Lee's Summit, Mo. "This is not a time to slow our development of future combat systems."
The Arizona senator went on to question Obama's larger judgment on foreign policy, citing his opposition to the troop "surge" in Iraq, his willingness to meet with the leaders of Iran and other U.S. enemies, and his initial comments on the Russia-Georgia conflict, in which Obama called on both nations to "show restraint."
"He was wrong about Iraq; he was wrong about Iran; he was wrong about Russia," McCain said, adding as Palin stood by his side: "He's wrong for America, and this governor is right for America."
With eight weeks until the election, a new batch of national polls suggested the presidential race was a dead heat, although Obama was still ahead in the electoral college count. After consistently trailing in national surveys, McCain is now running even or slightly ahead of Obama, thanks in good part to his selection of Palin and the positive support she has received from Republicans and white female voters.
McCain and Palin had planned to split up over the weekend. But given the large, supportive crowds she has drawn, the two continued their road act Monday in Missouri, one of several Midwestern battleground states.
Later, McCain attended a fundraiser at the Chicago Hilton as Palin flew to Ohio. He offered an enthusiastic assessment of her qualifications and a hint about how he saw her future. "Not only did she cut taxes, not only did she give money back to the taxpayers, but she understands one of the vital issues of America's future, and that's energy," McCain said. ". . . I'm proud of the experience and the talent that she brings to our ticket and she will bring to the presidency and vice presidency."
Obama campaigned in Michigan, a state that has voted Democratic since 1992 but that is very much in play this year. He spoke to a crowd of about 325 people at a community college in Flint, a city with a 12% unemployment rate. His visit was an attempt to keep voters focused on bread-and-butter economic woes -- terrain on which Obama outpolls his Republican rivals.
Standing before the crowd in a white button-down shirt and tie, Obama said: "John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, at the [Republican] convention asserted that they were the agents of change. . . . And now they're trying to repackage themselves. We've been talking about the need to change this country for 19 months. I guess it must be working, because suddenly John McCain is saying 'I'm for change too.' "
Obama said his rival's repeated vow to take on Washington lobbyists was an empty gesture. "Sounds pretty good until you discover that seven of his top campaign managers and officials are, guess what? Former corporate lobbyists.
"What they are going to try to do is what they always do," Obama went on, "which is attack, go on the negative, distort, mislead, assert." Some in the crowd began to chant, "Lie! Lie!" Obama did not respond, but his campaign began airing a TV spot that said as much. "Politicians lying about their record?" an announcer says over an image of McCain and Palin. "You don't call that maverick. You call it more of the same."
Earlier Monday, Obama dropped off his two daughters for the first day of classes at the private school they attend in Chicago. His youngest, Sasha, is entering the second grade; Malia, the fifth. A daughter on either side of him, holding his hands, Obama walked into the building through a side entrance, trailed by a Secret Service agent.
He later told the crowd in Flint: "The fifth-grader didn't want me to go up to the classroom, but I went. She's still Daddy's girl."
Nicholas reported from Flint, Reston from Lee's Summit.