COLUMBUS - Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain ratcheted up the rhetoric against Democrat Barack Obama yesterday in Ohio while insisting he continues to prepare for a race against either him or Hillary Clinton.
Taking on Mr. Obama in an area where he has excelled - fund-raising - Mr. McCain called on the surging Democrat to stick to an earlier statement made to a public interest group that he would pursue a public campaign-financing agreement with the Republican nominee.
Such an agreement would level the playing field a bit by providing about $85 million in taxpayer funds, collected through income-tax return check-offs, to each candidate while restricting how much campaigns could spend.
Mrs. Clinton didn't make a similar pledge.
"A year ago, I signed a piece of paper and committed that, if I were the nominee to my party, I would take public financing for the general election,'' Mr. McCain told reporters at the downtown Columbus hotel where he held his Wisconsin primary victory rally the night before.
"At that time, Senator Obama made that same commitment,'' he said. "Now I notice in a column in USA Today today he is talking about other outside money. That's Washington double-speak I hope he will keep his commitment to the American people.''
Mr. McCain said he would re-evaluate his own position on accepting public dollars if Mr. Obama forgoes public financing. Mr. Obama raised more than $32 million in January, eclipsing both Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton.
"John McCain is in no place to question anyone on pledges when he abandoned the latest campaign-finance reform efforts in order to run for the Republican nomination and went back on his commitment to take public financing for the primary election this year," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said.
Despite having to borrow money to keep his early campaign afloat, Mr. McCain emerged victorious over the well-heeled former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, leaving Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as the only major Republican contender still standing.
Mr. McCain now squeezes in private fund-raisers whenever possible between campaign events, including one today when he visits northwest Ohio. His campaign, however, wasn't providing details on that event.
Meanwhile, he plans a 9 a.m. public "meet and greet'' at Charlie's Restaurant at 26555 North Dixie Highway in Perrysburg. The event will be very similar to one held yesterday at a restaurant in Yellow Springs near Dayton. He then plans to proceed to Wayne, Mich., to tour a Ford auto assembly plant.
Mr. McCain again singled out Mr. Obama as he did in his victory speech the night before, targeting comments the Illinois senator made in relation to bombing al-Qaeda targets within Pakistan, a U.S. ally.
"The best idea is not to broadcast what you're going to do. That's naive ,'' he said. "You don't broadcast that you want to bomb a country that is a sovereign nation and you're depending on the goodwill of the people of that country to help you in the war and the struggle against the Taliban and the sanctuaries they hold.''
The Arizona senator continued to talk about Mr. Obama as if he were already the nominee while Mrs. Clinton hopes that delegate-rich Ohio and Texas on March 4 and Pennsylvania on April 22 will throw water on the Obama fever that saw him win 10 consecutive primaries through Tuesday.
Mr. McCain has joined Mrs. Clinton in questioning Mr. Obama's experience and depth of proposals, but he insisted he isn't singling out Mr. Obama.
"We will draw stark differences between myself and either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama, whoever is the nominee for the party, whether it be taxes, health care taken over by the government, or decisions by families, or national security,'' he said.
Later yesterday, about 300 people crowded into the landmark Young's Jersey Dairy restaurant in Yellow Springs while about 200 more braved the snow outside to greet Mr. McCain's Straight Talk Express bus.
Yellow Springs, home of liberal Antioch College, would hardly be considered McCain-friendly territory, but the owners of the restaurant are close to former Sen. Mike DeWine, a long-time McCain supporter.
"This is the most visited place in southwestern Ohio,'' said Carl Young, a senior co-owner. "There will be 1.3 million people here this year. We get more people than the Air Force museum does.''
But he would not expect the bulk of those people to vote for Mr. McCain.
"We're only a mile from Yellow Springs,'' he said with a smile. "That's the most liberal area in the country.''
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