WASHINGTON — After clinching the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama on Wednesday went on the offensive against Republican opponent John McCain, who responded by inviting his rival to hold a series of town hall meetings with him across the country to debate issues.
Fresh off claiming the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama's campaign also announced a three-person team, including Caroline Kennedy, to lead his search for vice president.
In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs in which he vowed solidarity with the Jewish state, Obama accused McCain of having a "plan for staying, not a plan for victory," in Iraq.
“Keeping all of our troops tied down indefinitely in Iraq is not the way to weaken Iran, it is precisely what strengthened it,” the Illinois senator said.
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Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama's defeated Democratic rival, followed Obama to the podium at AIPAC, delivering a strong defense of Israel — and also of her rival in the nominating race.
“Let me be very clear. I know that Senator Obama will be a good friend to Israel,” she said to applause.
On Monday, McCain took Obama to task for his willingness to hold talks with Iran. "The idea that (the Iranians) now seek nuclear weapons because we refuse to engage in presidential-level talks is a serious misreading of history," McCain said, citing unsuccessful efforts by President Bill Clinton's administration to engage with Tehran.
McCain was campaigning Wednesday in Louisiana, where he said he had invited Obama to tour the country in town-hall settings and debate campaign issues. Video: Tim Russert talks politics
"What a welcome change it would be," McCain wrote in his invitation, "were presidential candidates in our time to treat each other and the people they seek to lead with respect and courtesy as they discussed the great issues of the day, without the empty sound bites and media-filtered exchanges that dominate our elections."
The Obama campaign issued a statement welcoming the idea.
"As Barack Obama has said before, the idea of joint town halls is appealing and one that would allow a great conversation to take place about the need to change the direction of this country," his campaign stated. "We would recommend a format that is less structured and lengthier than the McCain campaign suggests, one that more closely resembles the historic debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas."
"This is one of the many items we will be addressing in the coming days and look forward to discussing it with the McCain campaign," the statement said.
VP team chosen
Meanwhile, the Obama campaign asked a three-person team to help lead the vetting of a prospective vice presidential candidate. Kennedy has begun managing the process with high-profile Democratic insiders Jim Johnson and Eric Holder.
Johnson is the former CEO of Fannie Mae who also oversaw the vice presidential vetting for John Kerry in 2004 and Walter Mondale in 1984. Holder was deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration and has been a senior legal adviser to Obama’s campaign.
The Illinois senator on Wednesday disclosed he had spoken with Clinton earlier Wednesday.
“I just spoke to her today, and we’re going to be having a conversation in coming weeks. And I’m very confident how unified the Democratic party’s going to be to win in November,” Obama told reporters as he left the Senate.
Asked if Clinton indicated she planned to concede, Obama replied, "It wasn’t a detailed conversation. As I said, I’m very confident of how we’re going to be able to bring the party together." He dismissed a question about her refusal to concede after the final two primaries Tuesday night by saying she was "understandably focused on her supporters."
Clinton aides, meanwhile, ramped up speculation of her as Obama's running mate. "I think a lot of her supporters would like to see her on the ticket," Clinton campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe said. But Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs cautioned "there is no deal in the works."
Bush, Rice congratulate Obama
At the White House, President Bush offered his congratulations to Obama, the first African American ever to win a major party presidential nomination.
"President Bush congratulates Sen. Obama for clinching the Democratic party's 2008 nomination for president," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters. "Sen. Obama came a long way in becoming his party's nominee. And his historic achievement reflects the fact that our country has come a long way, too.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed that view, describing Obama's nomination as an "extraordinary" development for the United States.
"The United States of America is an extraordinary country. It is a country that has overcome many, many, now years, decades, actually a couple of centuries, of trying to make good on its principles," said Rice, the first female black secretary of state, serving in a Republican administration. "And I think what we are seeing is an extraordinary expression of the fact that 'We the People' is beginning to mean to all of us."
"I congratulate Obama and McCain on their respective campaigns and Sen. Clinton on hers as well," she added. "I look forward to viewing it all on the sidelines as a voter."
The primaries behind them, Obama and McCain were drawing the battle line for a fall fight that will make history with the election of either the oldest first-term president in McCain or the first black commander in chief in Obama. In speeches marking the start of the general election, both maneuvered for the advantage with voters sour on the status quo. Both were competing beyond their party's base, too.
"The key to winning the election is independent voters and Democrats as well," McCain said in an interview shown Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America." Even so, he said "I don't think so" when asked on CBS whether he'd pick a Democrat as his running mate.
Meantime, Clinton advisers told NBC News that the candidate needed a few days to decompress after the lengthy campaign. The former first lady will spend Wednesday night hosting an 89th birthday party for her mother, Dorothy Rodham, at the Clinton home.
The advisers, speaking to NBC's Andrea Mitchell, said that Clinton is interested in being Obama's running mate. It is an issue Obama and Clinton would have to explore face to face, they said.
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