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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

Obama wields a Wall Street cudgel

In Florida, a key state, he uses the crisis to slam McCain on Social Security, government reform and healthcare.

September 21, 2008|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — Barack Obama made the calamity on Wall Street the central theme of his case against John McCain on Saturday, invoking the crisis to pound his rival on Social Security, healthcare and government reform.

The scope of Obama's argument demonstrated how the biggest financial bailout since the Great Depression has shifted the terms of debate in the White House contest. In two days of campaigning across Florida, the Democratic presidential nominee made it the foundation of a wide-ranging assault on his Republican opponent. McCain, in turn, has used it to sharpen his criticism of Obama.

Playing off the pocketbook anxieties of the state's huge elderly population, Obama reminded Floridians that McCain had backed President Bush's doomed effort to let Americans invest Social Security benefits in the stock and bond markets. If the Arizona senator had had his way, Obama said, millions last week "would've watched as the market tumbled and their nest egg disappeared before their eyes."

"I know Sen. McCain is talking about a casino culture on Wall Street, but the fact is he's the one who wants to gamble with your life savings," Obama told 2,500 supporters in a theater at Bethune-Cookman University.

In fact, the Republican presidential nominee has favored giving only future retirees -- not current beneficiaries -- the option to invest Social Security savings.

McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds called Obama's attack "a desperate attempt to gain political advantage using scare tactics and deceit."

"John McCain is 100% committed to preserving Social Security benefits for seniors, and Barack Obama knows it," he said.

As Obama wrapped up his Florida trip with rallies in Daytona Beach and Jacksonville, McCain took a break from campaigning Saturday. He attended a football game and his 50th class reunion at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.

Obama's appeal for elderly support was part of a concentrated weeklong push by the Illinois senator in Florida. He plans to spend a few days in the Tampa Bay area this week in preparation for his first debate with McCain, on Friday in Oxford, Miss.

Most polls have found Florida leaning toward McCain, but some recent surveys suggested the race was virtually tied in the state that Bush won by 537 votes in 2000. Obama has spent heavily on TV ads in Florida and built a sprawling get-out-the-vote operation.

"We can win this thing without Florida, but boy, it's a lot easier if we win Florida," Obama told donors Friday night at a Miami fundraiser. "If we win Florida, it is almost impossible for John McCain to win."

Earlier, at a fundraiser nearby in Coral Gables, Obama tried to navigate Florida's ethnic patchwork. He urged donors to tell voters that he "believes in liberty for the Cuban people," "will never sacrifice Israel's security" and "cares about what's happening in Haiti."

In a state where New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton proved popular, Obama also made extensive appeals to women. Mocking McCain's vow to shake up Washington, Obama told the crowd here that a president "who opposes the option of abortion even in cases of rape and incest" would not bring change.

In fact, though McCain opposes legal abortion, he would make exceptions for rape and incest cases. It is his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who opposes abortion even in those cases.

But Obama's focus Saturday was upheaval in financial markets. Citing a breakdown in government oversight, he recalled McCain's description of himself as "fundamentally a deregulator." Obama read -- with an exaggerated tone of sarcasm -- a quote from an article on healthcare that McCain wrote in Contingencies, a trade publication for actuaries.

" 'Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation,' " Obama read.

"So let me get this straight," he said. "He wants to run healthcare like they've been running Wall Street. Well, senator, I know some folks on Main Street who aren't going to think that's such a good idea."

And Obama questioned McCain's credibility in pledging to crack down on corporate greed and curb the influence of lobbyists. He described a senior McCain advisor, former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina, as someone "who got a $40-million golden parachute when she was fired."

In the latest thrust in their duel over which candidate had closer ties to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Obama also said that McCain had "26 advisors and fundraisers who lobbied" for the government-seized mortgage giants. "Give me a break," he said.

McCain, in turn, assailed Obama for accepting campaign money from donors tied to the mortgage companies.

"This is the problem with Washington," McCain said in his weekly radio address. "People like Sen. Obama have been too busy gaming the system and haven't ever done a thing to actually challenge the system. The crisis on Wall Street started in the Washington culture of lobbying and influence peddling, and he was square in the middle of it."

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michael.finnegan @latimes.com

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