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McCain, Obama head into the thick of it

Democrat Barack Obama's campaign to take the White House as the candidate representing change has run up against Washington realities as he was forced to abandon a key figure in his search for a vice presidential running mate.
Obama 2008
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama D-Ill., speaks at a town hall meeting at Kaukauna High School in Kaukauna, Wis. on ThursdayAlex Brandon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Democrat Barack Obama's campaign as the candidate representing change has run up against Washington realities as he was forced to abandon a key figure in his search for a vice presidential running mate.

The departure of Jim Johnson — a Washington insider under Republican criticism of his having received favorable loans from a financial giant under investigation in the U.S. home mortgage crisis — again showed the challenges to a candidate like Obama who wants to make the U.S. government work differently.

But the Johnson resignation was just one of a thicket of top issues in the first days of Obama's head-to-head White House campaign against Republican John McCain.

They have leveled charge and countercharge about the flagging American economy. McCain has bumped up against his support for the unpopular Iraq war. And Obama was forced to push aside a member of his vice presidential search committee.

The economy out front
The economy, Iraq and the candidates' associates — past and present — look to dominate the contest as they battle through the next four plus months to take the president's chair in the Oval Office.

On Wednesday, Obama supporters came down hard on McCain for saying in a television interview that it was "not too important" when American troops are withdrawn from Iraq.

But the Illinois senator felt pain with the Johnson resignation.

Thus was the scorecard on just the third day of their general election campaign, set in motion after Hillary Rodham Clinton withdrew her challenge over the weekend to deny Obama the Democratic slot.

Obama was campaigning in Wisconsin on Thursday; McCain planned appearances in New Hampshire and New York City. At the latter event he planned to stand next to an empty chair, signifying Obama's failure so far to accept McCain's invitation to appear with him in a series of nationally televised town hall-style meetings. The event is now produced by Fox News and the prop has been scrapped.

Iraq issues
While the Iraq war had slid to second place among issues troubling voters — the stumbling economy is now far and away Americans' dominant concern — McCain put the conflict back on front pages.

McCain has been a supporter of the war, particularly last year's decision by the White House to boost troop strength to bring down violence. He was critical of the early management of the war, but strongly supported the troop build up, now being reversed, and says it was successful.

Obama has opposed the war from the outset and promises to bring American troops home within 16 months of taking office.

Their differences got a fresh airing when McCain was asked on NBC television if he had a better estimate for when American forces could leave the country given the drop in violence.

"No, but that's not too important," McCain said. "What's important is casualties in Iraq.

"Americans are in South Korea. Americans are in Japan. American troops are in Germany. That's all fine. American casualties, and the ability to withdraw. We will be able to withdraw... But the key to it is we don't want any more Americans in harm's way."

Democrats quickly declared McCain out of touch with American voter expectations and the needs of the U.S. military, which is hard-pressed to meet its obligations under the strain of troop and equipment commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who in 2004 considered asking McCain to join him on the Democratic presidential ticket, lashed out at the Republican candidate.

"It is unbelievably out of touch and inconsistent with the needs and concerns of Americans, and particularly the families of the troops who are over there," Kerry said. "To them it's the most important thing in the world when they come home."

At a subsequent town hall meeting in Philadelphia, McCain appeared to directly respond to charges he was insensitive to the needs of veterans and their families.

"I know it (the war) has caused great hardship and pain," he said. "But I believe that in the conflict in Iraq, with this new strategy, we are succeeding."

Lieberman chimes in
In a teleconference with reporters arranged by McCain's campaign, Senator Joe Lieberman accused Democrats of a "partisan attempt to distort John McCain's words." Lieberman was Vice President Al Gore's Democratic running mate in 2000 but switched to become a political independent.

Lieberman said it was clear McCain was "answering a question about what his estimate is based on the success of the surge."

McCain has said he was comfortable keeping U.S. forces in Iraq for 100 years, but more recently he said he could envision troops withdrawing around 2013. He has refused to name a date.

Shortly after McCain spoke, Johnson, Obama's presidential search team member, resigned.

"Jim did not want to distract in any way from the very important task of gathering information about my vice presidential nominee, so he has made a decision to step aside that I accept," Obama said in a statement.

Johnson, the former chairman of government-backed mortgage lender Fannie Mae, received loans with the help of the CEO of Countrywide Financial Corp., which is part of a federal investigation into home financing that is a key factor in the U.S. economic downturn.

Also Thursday, Obama's campaign created a new Web site to debunk rumors about the Obamas, It highlighted a denial that Michelle Obama had used the word "whitey," a racial pejorative, at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. The rumor, which has circulated on conservative Republican blogs for weeks and was repeated by radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, claims a videotape of her tape exists.

The church, from which the Obamas recently resigned, had been home to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who came under fire for sermons in which he cursed America and accused the government of conspiring against blacks.