Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama on Saturday called rival John McCain's campaign cynical, but said he did not believe comments by the Arizona senator and his aides were based on racism.
The McCain campaign charged this week that Obama had injected racial politics into the campaign by accusing McCain and other Republicans of planning to scare voters by pointing out that he "doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills" _ all of whom are white men.
In the ensuing debate, a McCain spokesman suggested the Arizona senator was being painted as a racist. Obama denied the charge, saying only that McCain campaign's comments were part of a wider negative campaign against him.
"In no way do I think John McCain's campaign was racist. I think they are cynical," Obama said on Saturday. "Their team is good at creating distractions and engaging in negative attacks." A McCain campaign spokesman, Tucker Bounds, said in a statement on Saturday: "We're glad the Obama campaign retracted Barack Obama's accusation because it was absolutely false, and we're moving on." At his news conference on Saturday, Obama pointed the finger back at McCain.
"None of you thought I was making a racially incendiary remark, or playing the race card," he told reporters. "It wasn't until John McCain's team started pushing it that it ended up being on the front page of The New York Times two days in a row." The first-term Illinois senator often draws attention to the unique nature of his campaign and says he is aware there are doubts among some voters because, for example, he has "a funny name." Obama is the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya.
The latest spat is the first intrusion of racial issues into the general election, but it was a sensitive issue for Obama in the Democratic primary campaign. The subject broke into the open last spring when Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, came under fire for sermons in which he accused the government of conspiring against blacks. Seeking to stem the fallout, Obama gave a high profile speech about racial tension and later quit his Chicago church.
McCain has rejected Obama's claims of negativity. He defended on Friday an Internet advertisement mocking Obama as a messianic figure, saying it was important to "display a sense of humor" in the presidential contest.
In the Internet ad, a voiceover calls Obama "The One." It features clips of Obama appearing to describe himself and his presidential quest in grandiose terms and ends with Charlton Heston as Moses parting the Red Sea in the movie, "The Ten Commandments." The ad came on the heels of another television ad juxtaposing Obama with lightweight celebrities Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan slammed the Web ad, which he called "juvenile actions."
In an appearance before the National Urban League, a black civil rights organization, in Orlando, Florida, on Saturday, Obama alluded to the "pop star" ad.
"We face serious issues in this election and have real differences," he said. "I'm not going to assault Sen. McCain's character, I'm not going to compare him to pop stars. I will, however, compare our two visions for our economic future." The rapid fire developments capped a week of campaigning in which the two White House hopefuls sharpened their attacks on each other, escalating the rhetoric and prompting each campaign to accuse the other of starting the negative tone.
While Obama paints McCain as little more than an extension of President George W. Bush's unpopular presidency, the veteran Arizona senator maintains that his rival is an inexperienced elitist who would much rather sound the trumpet of change than actually enact any reforms.
Meanwhile, Obama Saturday backed away from a challenge by McCain to take part in a series of joint appearances, agreeing only to the standard three presidential debates in the fall.
Back in May, when a McCain adviser proposed a series of pre-convention appearances at town hall meetings, Obama said, "I think that's a great idea." But on Saturday, in a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates, which arranges the traditional fall debates between the candidates, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said the short period between the last political convention and the first proposed debate made it likely that the commission-sponsored debates would be the only ones. When asked Saturday if that meant Obama would not agree to any other debates, campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, "We're not saying that." She said the McCain campaign had rejected Obama's proposal for two joint town hall meetings.
On the campaign trail, McCain has often noted that Obama had not followed through and joined him in any events.
Obama's reversal on town hall debates is part of a play-it-safe strategy he's adopted since claiming the nomination and grabbing a lead in national polls. Advisers to the Illinois senator, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss strategy, say Obama is reluctant to take chances or give McCain a high-profile stage now that Obama is the front-runner. McCain's campaign disparaged Obama for backing off. "We understand it might be beneath a worldwide celebrity of Barack Obama's magnitude to appear at town hall meetings alongside John McCain and directly answer questions from the American people, but we hope he'll reconsider," spokesman Brian Rogers said. Separately, Obama said on Friday that he would be willing to support limited additional offshore oil drilling if that would help promote alternative energy sources, a shift on a plan he has repeatedly blasted McCain for supporting.
Obama had previously ridiculed a push by Republicans to open offshore areas to oil exploration in a bid to bring down surging energy prices. The country's economic woes have largely eclipsed other issues in the presidential race.
The first-term Illinois senator had argued that any new oil found would take years to come onto the market and that conservation was a quicker solution to soaring costs.
But Obama told a Florida newspaper, The Palm Beach Post, in an interview published Friday that he could support a compromise with Republicans and oil companies on the offshore drilling issue in order to prevent gridlock over coming up with a comprehensive energy policy "that can bring down gas prices."
McCain, who has repeatedly accused Obama of vacillating on the issues, reiterated that his opponent doesn't have a plan equal to the country's energy challenges.
"Senator Obama says he wants energy independence, but he doesn't support anything that serves that goal. He is opposed to new domestic drilling, opposed to nuclear power, and wants to add taxes to coal producers," McCain said Saturday in his weekly radio address.
In his own remarks to the Urban League convention in Orlando, McCain said Friday that Obama appeared to be more willing to wax poetic about change than actually embrace it.
"If there's one thing he always delivers it's a great speech," McCain said. "But I hope you'll listen carefully, because his ideas are not always as impressive as his rhetoric."