TAMPA, Fla. - Capitalizing on this year's Cinderella major league baseball team, Democrat Barack Obama kicked off a two-day swing through Florida yesterday with an appearance with players from the Tampa Bay Rays.
Obama was introduced by David Price, who closed out Sunday night's victory over the Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. The win propelled the team, known for its relatively small payroll, into the World Series for the first time.
The candidates on the Republican ticket pressed their economic proposals in separate campaign stops, arguing that Obama wants to increase taxes. Sen. John McCain was in Missouri, while vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin campaigned in Colorado - battleground states, along with Florida, that are crucial for the GOP.
As early presidential voting got under way, and with two weeks until Election Day, Obama pressed his economic plan and warned supporters that increasingly tough tactics could be expected from his opponents. The most recent polls showed Obama ahead but with a slightly narrowing lead. In recent days, the McCain camp has accused Obama of having a liberal agenda that focuses on redistributing wealth, and automated telephone calls have gone out in several states that link Obama to a former radical with whom the Illinois senator had a limited relationship.
"Change never comes without a fight," Obama said. "In the final days of campaigns, the say-anything, do-anything politics too often takes over. We've seen it before. And we're seeing it again: ugly phone calls; misleading mail; misleading TV ads; careless, outrageous comments. All aimed at keeping us from working together, all aimed at stopping change.
"It's getting so bad that even Senator McCain's running mate denounced his tactics last night. You know you really have to work hard to violate Governor Palin's standards on negative campaigning," he said to about 8,000 people at the Florida rally.
The Republican ticket has opposed any tax increases, and McCain has called for extending the income-tax cuts of President Bush. Obama's plan would increase taxes for those earning more than $250,000 a year, but everyone else would get a tax cut.
"It's true that I want to roll back the Bush tax cuts on the very wealthiest Americans and go back to the rate that they paid under Bill Clinton," Obama said yesterday. "John McCain calls that socialism. What he forgets, conveniently, is that just a few years ago, he himself said those Bush tax cuts were irresponsible. He said he couldn't 'in good conscience' support a tax cut where the benefits went to the wealthy at the expense of 'middle-class Americans who most need tax relief.' That's his quote."
Obama's two-day trip to Florida was timed to coincide with the start of early voting.
The state is a must-win for McCain, and, although it's somewhat less crucial for Obama, Florida is a state that Democrats deeply covet after the party's disputed loss in 2000. Bush carried the state more clearly in 2004.
Polls suggest Florida is again a battleground. Here, as elsewhere, Obama was on the offensive. His first stop, in Tampa, took him to a GOP stronghold where winning is less important than holding down McCain's victory margin. Orlando is much more competitive. Obama was scheduled to campaign yesterday with former rival Sen. Hillary Clinton.
With a healthy bank account and a lead in every state he needs to win, Obama was focused on taking states that Republicans carried four years ago. With the exception of a stop later this week in Wisconsin, the Democratic nominee will spend the next several days exclusively in so-called red states: Florida, Virginia and Iowa.
The Obama campaign reported over the weekend that it raised $150 million in September, shattering all campaign fundraising records and giving Obama a huge advantage. McCain is taking public financing, so his resources are more limited.
Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, said yesterday that, despite Obama's money advantage, McCain would have sufficient funds for the final push before Nov. 4. He estimated that with McCain's $84.1 million in federal funding, plus money raised by the Republican National Committee and various state committees, McCain had access to $400 million for the general election.
McCain visited St. Charles, Mo., where he attracted about 2,500 people to a rally yesterday. Over the weekend, Obama drew an estimated 100,000 supporters to a rally in downtown St. Louis.
National polls give Obama a lead of 48.4 percent to McCain's 44 percent, according to Realclearpolitics.com. With many predicting an uphill struggle for the 72-year-old Republican, McCain castigated the media, saying the national press "has written us off, as they have several times in the past."
"I'm not George Bush," he said. He promised to "take the country in a new direction" and offer plans to protect homeowners from foreclosure and retirees from tax increases.
"I've been fighting for this country since I was 17 years old, and I have the scars to prove it," he said.