After days on the campaign defensive, Democrat Barack Obama accused rival Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday of leveling criticism straight from the Republican playbook and said even so, he will win the White House over John McCain and an "out of touch" GOP.
"I may have made a mistake last week in the words that I chose, but the other party has made a much more damaging mistake in the failed policies they've chosen and the bankrupt philosophy that they've embraced for the last three decades ..." Obama said.
"This philosophy isn't just out of touch, it's put our economy out of whack."
Obama spoke at The Associated Press annual meeting, a few hours after McCain had made a less combative appearance of his own.
The Arizona senator announced support for legislation to protect the confidentiality of news sources, although he also challenged the news media to acknowledge its errors "beyond the small print on a corrections page."
He also displayed his penchant for occasionally differing with the Bush administration, saying he believes the country has already entered a recession.
In his speech and in a more relaxed question-and-answer session meant to approximate the setting on his "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus, McCain repeatedly declined to label Obama an elitist for the comments that have roiled the race for the White House in recent days.
"I think those comments are elitist," he said. "I think anybody who disparages anyone who is hardworking, the dedicated people who cherish the right to hunt and observe their values and the culture ... and say that's because they are unhappy with their economic conditions, I think that's a fundamental contradiction to what I think America is."
"These are people who produced the generation that made the world safe for democracy."
McCain's remarks were his latest reaction to Obama's description last week of residents of small towns that have been economically distressed for a generation or more.
"It's not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations," the Illinois senator said at a private fundraiser in San Francisco. The Huffington Post reported the remarks on Friday.
Obama's comments at the AP's annual luncheon appeared to reflect a double-edged political imperative.
While still locked in a tight race for the party's nomination, he wants to do what he can to blunt McCain's recent rise in hypothetical general election matchups. At the same time, he does not want to give ground to Clinton, whose aides have welcomed the recent controversy as a possible way to raise doubts about his electability in the fall.
Four more years?
Obama walked to the podium with a speech that included strongly worded criticism of McCain, who is assured of claiming the Republican presidential nomination in September at the party convention in St. Paul, Minn.
"He's had a front-row seat to the last eight years of disastrous policies that have widened the income gap and saddled our children with debt," Obama said. "And now he's promising four more years of the very same thing."
Obama said McCain supports permanent tax breaks for the wealthiest that he once opposed, backs trade deals without safeguards for U.S. workers and promises privatization of Social Security.
Obama's focus turned to Clinton when he began fielding questions, though, reflecting what aides say is a rising anger after days of criticism of his comments.
Ahead in delegates, states and popular vote
Asked about the impact of the long nominating battle on the party's chances of winning the White House, he said, "I have tried to figure out how to show restraint and make sure that, during this primary contest, we're not damaging each other so badly that it's hard for us to run in November.
"Obviously, it's a little easier for me to say that, since, you know, I lead in delegates and states and popular vote."
Clinton "may not feel that she can afford to be so constrained," he said, adding at one point that she's "been deploying most of the arguments that the Republican Party will be using against me in November."
In fact, Clinton released a new ad in Pennsylvania on the subject of Obama's comments in which several unidentified people described as her supporters talk about how insulted they felt by what Obama said.
Later, while speaking to reporters traveling with him to Pennsylvania, McCain said Obama should apologize for his remarks against "small-town America."
"I think his remarks may be defining," McCain said, adding that Obama's unwillingness to apologize indicates "a certain out-of-touch elitism."
He also called on Obama to repudiate former President Carter for planning to meet with Hamas.