RICHMOND, Va. — Democrat Barack Obama on Wednesday brushed aside Republican charges that his tax plan amounts to socialism, but acknowledged it involves "spreading around opportunity” so that wealthier Americans — like himself — pay a little more to help lower-rung workers.
Obama noted that when President Bush’s tax cuts were first proposed, his opponent for the White House, Republican John McCain, opposed them as irresponsibly targeted.
"Was John McCain a socialist back in 2000?” Obama asked at a news conference. Responding to the late-campaign line of attack repeated daily by McCain and running mate Sarah Palin, he said: "I think it’s an indication that they have run out of ideas.”
Obama commented at a news conference after meeting with foreign policy and military luminaries to discuss "urgent issues” facing the country from abroad, an attempt to inoculate himself against the fresh charge from the McCain side that he is too untested for the White House.
McCain and Palin have seized on comments by Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden that Obama would face a "generated crisis” within six months of becoming president because adversaries across the world would want to test his mettle.
McCain has said the statement from Obama’s own running mate illustrates the danger of electing Obama. Biden, however, reached a different conclusion: He said Obama would fare well in such tests because he’s "got steel in his spine.”
Obama said that what Biden meant was that either man who takes over from President Bush on Jan. 20 will face significant tests on the global stage and that the period of transition between administrations "is always one in which we have to be vigilant.”
"Joe sometimes engages in rhetorical flourishes,” Obama said. "His core point was the next administration is going to be tested regardless of who it is. ... The question is: Will the next president meet that test by moving America in a new direction, by sending a clear signal to the rest of the world that we are no longer about bluster and unilateralism and ideology?”
In a statement issued after the meeting, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said: "It’s not leadership for Barack Obama to promise to be straight with Americans, only to dismiss serious statements and concern from his own running mate as simple rhetorical flourishes.”
Obama sidestepped a question on whether he would attend a summit of world leaders the Bush administration has called for Nov. 15 to discuss the global economic crisis, saying he has ideas but doesn’t want to say much about them yet. "We have one president at a time,” he said.
With 13 days remaining in the race, most polls show Obama leading. He campaigned in Virginia amid an itinerary devoted exclusively to states that voted Republican in 2004, an indication of his confidence.
At a rally in Richmond after the news conference, Obama drew a foot-stomping crowd of 13,000 inside a coliseum and an overflow audience of 7,000 outside.
Loud applause followed when he turned around McCain’s regular references to Ohio plumber Joe Wurzelbacher’s face-to-face challenge to the Democrat about his tax plans. Obama says his proposals would actually reduce the man’s taxes, unlike McCain’s.
"He’s not fighting for Joe the Plumber,” Obama said of McCain. "He’s fighting for Joe the hedge fund manager. John McCain likes to talk about Joe the Plumber, but he’s in cahoots with Joe the CEO.”
Later at a chilly, sunset rally in Leesburg, a northern Virginia exurb outside Washington, Obama took several pokes at a McCain adviser’s recent comment that the downstate, more rural parts of the state are the "real Virginia.”
"Some folks may not think so, but this looks like the real Virginia to me. ... And y’all look like Virginias,” said Obama, an Illinois senator invoking a distinctly Southern idiom. There were far more McCain-Palin than Obama signs around town, but 35,000 people covered the hills of a park to see Obama.
Both campaigns are nervous about what surprises could spring up to affect the race. McCain has had a perceived dominance on foreign policy issues over Obama, and the campaign wants to tamp down any impact of that issue. Obama got a boost on that front over the weekend, when longtime Republican Colin Powell, a secretary of state under Bush, endorsed him.
Obama’s meeting called together more than a dozen retired generals and foreign policy mavens from Capitol Hill and the diplomatic world, all campaign advisers at some level, and included Biden and others by phone. He was flanked by the group on stage as he spoke, and a "Judgment to Lead” sign hung from the podium to further reinforce the point.
On taxes, McCain launched a new attack over the weekend, calling Obama’s plan "welfare” because it would provide a $500 tax credit that would include even those who pay no taxes. McCain accused Obama of favoring socialistic tax redistribution policies.
Obama’s response did not address the $500 tax break. But he said that overall, he wants to reverse the cuts that went to the wealthiest taxpayers when Bush’s plan was enacted in 2001 and use the revenue to give tax cuts to workers who make less than $250,000 a year.
"That does involve us spreading around opportunity and it means that for people like myself, making a lot more than $250,000 a year, paying a little bit more so that the waitress who is surviving on minimum wage can put a roof over her head,” Obama said.
McCain opposed Bus’s tax reductions when they were proposed because they went "to the most fortunate among us at the expense of middle-class Americans.” Now he wants to extend them and argues that anything else amounts to a tax increase.
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