Reporting from Tampa, Fla., and Kissimmee, Fla. — With the presidential election just six days away, John McCain tried to raise new doubts Wednesday about his rival's ability to protect America from threats overseas, as Barack Obama stayed focused on the nation's economic strife.
The tug of war to set the agenda for the campaign's closing days came as the pair of White House hopefuls crisscrossed Florida, one of the most fiercely contested presidential battlegrounds.
For the first time, the Democratic nominee campaigned side-by-side with former President Bill Clinton, who was deployed to the swing region of central Florida for the occasion.
At a late-night rally of 35,000 people in Kissimmee, Clinton contrasted Obama's reaction to the financial meltdown with McCain's. Obama sought a wide range of advice, Clinton said, because "he knew it was complicated, and before he said anything, he wanted to understand. "Folks, if we have not learned anything, we have learned that we need a president who wants to understand -- and who can understand," he said.
Clinton did not mention McCain by name but assailed Republicans for accusing Obama of pushing a "redistribution of wealth."
"They just presided over the biggest redistribution of wealth since the 1920s, and we all know how that ended," Clinton said.
Earlier, on the Gulf Coast, McCain urged Floridians to consider the dangers of handing the presidency to an Illinois senator less seasoned than himself in foreign affairs.
Obama, he said, hopes the "cloud of crisis" on Wall Street will lead Americans to "forget the stakes in Iraq -- the disaster and tragedy that would follow if American forces leave in retreat."
"The question is whether this is a man who has what it takes to protect America from Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda and other grave threats in the world," McCain said after meeting with foreign policy advisors at the University of Tampa. "And he has given you no reason to answer in the affirmative."
The Republican nominee echoed that message with a new TV ad mocking Obama's "fancy speeches" and "grand promises."
"With crises at home and abroad, Barack Obama lacks the experience America needs. And it shows," an announcer says in the ad.
As McCain traveled across Florida, the Arizona senator, in a nod to Jewish voters, accused Obama of playing down his associations with Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian scholar whom he characterized as extremist.
Playing for Cuban American support, McCain condemned Fidel Castro. He told Radio Mambi that the former Cuban president had made his "preferences known in the campaign and had some very unkind things to say about me."
McCain did not ignore the economy. At a sign factory in Riviera Beach, he pounded Obama for supporting higher income taxes for those who make more than $250,000 a year.
"His tax increases are exactly the wrong approach in an economic downturn," McCain said.
In another Miami radio interview, McCain pressed his case that Obama's fiscal agenda resembles socialism.
"His economic policies are clearly those that have been used by other countries that you could describe as socialist," he said. "I mean redistribution of wealth, take money from one group, give it to others, is a fundamental principal of some of these, quote, 'socialist' countries."
Obama ridiculed McCain's statements at a lunchtime rally in North Carolina.
"By the end of the week, he'll be accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten," Obama told 28,000 supporters who filled an outdoor plaza in downtown Raleigh. "I shared my peanut butter and jelly sandwich."
Obama summed up his argument against McCain's economic plans. Mainly, he faulted his Republican rival for favoring an expansion of Bush's tax cuts. The nation would be better off, Obama said, if the middle class paid less tax and the wealthy chipped in more.
"Whether you are Suzy the student or Nancy the nurse or Tina the teacher or Carl the construction worker -- if my opponent is elected, you will be worse off four years from now than you are today," Obama said, playing off McCain's vow to champion Joe the Plumber, an Ohio man who has questioned the Democrat's tax proposals.
At an evening rally in Sunrise, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale, Obama renewed his pledge not to raise taxes "one single dime" on Americans who earn less than $250,000 a year.
"Let me just see a show of hands," he told 20,000 supporters packed into a Florida Panthers hockey arena. "How many people here make less than a quarter million dollars a year?" Nearly everyone raised their hands. "The last thing we should do in this economy is raise taxes on the middle-class," Obama said.
Obama launched Wednesday his first advertising attack on McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. The ad quotes McCain saying in a debate last year that he "might have to rely on a vice president" for expertise on the economy. A question flashes on screen: "His choice?" The spot then cuts to video of Palin winking.
Obama has shied from attacking Palin. But recent polls have found she has become a drag on McCain's candidacy, with many voters seeing her as unqualified to step in as president should the need arise.
Obama's visits to North Carolina and Florida in the campaign's final stretch reflected the bleak election map that McCain faces: President Bush won nearly every state where the candidates and their running mates are campaigning this week.
To defeat Obama, McCain must carry almost every one of them. In addition to North Carolina and Florida, the battleground states include Missouri, Indiana, Virginia and Ohio.
Offering comic relief from the contentious campaign, Obama appeared Wednesday on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." Stewart suggested to the biracial candidate that his white half might suddenly decide in the voting booth that he could not vote for a black man.
"It's a problem," Obama joked. "I've been going through therapy to make sure I vote properly on the 4th."
Stewart also told Obama that he might want to hold his Florida rallies earlier than his 11 p.m. event with Clinton.
"They don't like to miss their shows at night or the early-bird special at the diner," he said referring to the state's huge block of senior citizen voters.
"No comment on that, Jon," Obama replied. "I'm trying to win Florida."
Finnegan and Reston are Times staff writers.