Democrat Barack Obama blasted George W. Bush's decision to keep Iraq war troop levels largely unchanged, linking rival John McCain to the unpopular president's war policies as he tried to regain momentum in the U.S presidential race.
Obama has seen his poll number slide after McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate and has since been on the defensive as the veteran Arizona senator seized on his central campaign theme of changing Washington and tried to make it his own.
The first-term Illinois senator has also campaigned on a pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months of becoming president, and Bush's announcement allows him to refocus attention away from Palin and onto the two wars being fought by American troops, an issue that U.S. voters have turned away from in their anxiety over the shaky economy.
Bush said Tuesday that he would keep the U.S. force strength in Iraq largely intact until the next president takes over and outlined what he called a "quiet surge" of additional American forces in Afghanistan. Obama fired back that the announcement means taxpayers "will continue to spend $10 billion a month in Iraq while the Iraqi government sits on a $79 billion surplus."
"In the absence of a timetable to remove our combat brigades, we will continue to give Iraq's leaders a blank check instead of pressing them to reconcile their differences," Obama said while campaigning in Ohio, a crucial swing state.
"Now, the choice for the American people could not be clearer. John McCain has been talking a lot about change, but he's running for four more years of the same foreign policy that we've had under George Bush. Senator McCain will continue the overwhelming focus on Iraq that has taken our eye off of the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11," Obama said.
Down in Iraq, up in Afghanistan
Bush's announcement means that the U.S. will withdraw about 8,000 combat and support troops by February — a drawdown not as deep or swift as long anticipated — and what likely will be Bush's last major move on troop strategy in Iraq.
Bush also spoke of raising the troop level in Afghanistan to nearly 31,000, compared with about 146,000 in Iraq. He said that a Marine battalion that had been scheduled to go to Iraq in November would go to Afghanistan instead, and that that would be followed by one Army combat brigade.
But the limited focus on Afghanistan, the one-time safe-haven for al-Qaida mastermind Osama bin Laden, and where Taliban militants are regaining strength, left the Republican president open to criticism that his focus in the so-called "war on terror" continues to be misplaced.
Obama has also proposed sending about 7,000 addition troops to Afghanistan to combat the Taliban and chase down bin Laden, who is believed to be hiding along the rugged border in neighboring Pakistan.
McCain, too, has said more troops are needed in Afghanistan, but has called for a smaller number. He also says U.S. forces should not be withdrawn from Iraq until conditions on the ground would dictate a departure. The particulars of those conditions, however, have not been defined.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had been expected to dominate the 2008 presidential campaign but have been overshadowed in voters minds by the deeply troubled American economy. Obama has also tried to tie McCain with Bush on that front, as well as on key social services issues which factor prominently with voters.
Earlier Tuesday in Ohio, Obama attacked McCain over his track record on improving education, focusing on a key voter concern as he looked to pick up support of independent voters in the crucial swing state and regain the lead in the polls.
Obama's targeting of education — a subject Republicans have typically focused on — reflects how he is trying to recapture some of the momentum in a White House race where polls show McCain gaining support — particularly among white women — largely because of his choice of Palin as vice president.
An ABC News-Washington Post survey showed white women have moved from backing Obama by 8 points to supporting McCain by 12 points, with majorities viewing Palin favorably and saying she boosts their faith in McCain's decisions.
Obama vowed to double federal funding for privately run charter schools and accusing opponent John McCain of having done nothing in his long Senate tenure to improve education for American students.
Charter schools, so-called because they are privately run, are a campaign issue because they generally conflict philosophically with the long U.S. tradition of providing federal education funding to public schools that are run by local governments.
Obama said the country needed a bipartisan drive to stop the deterioration of the U.S. educational system, which McCain has said must include a wide spectrum of school choices — including charter institutions.
Education reform has been the focus of a longtime partisan battle in the presidential election swing state.
The politics of 'Change'
While sounding a bipartisan note, Obama also attacked McCain for having spent three decades in Congress and "not done one thing to truly improve the quality of public education in our country. Not one real proposal or law or initiative. Nothing."
In conjunction with a broad plan for education reform during the speech in Dayton, Ohio, Obama's campaign disclosed a new television ad that says "John McCain doesn't understand."
"John McCain voted to cut education funding. Against accountability standards. He even proposed abolishing the Department of Education. And John McCain's economic plan gives two hundred billion more to special interests while taking money away from public schools."
The boost the Palin has provided McCain is also reflected in fundraising.
McCain accumulated a sizable haul — $4 million — for the Republican campaign treasury during a fundraiser on Monday in Chicago, Obama's home base. And, of the $47 million he raised in August, $10 million came in the three days after he announced Palin as his running mate.
Because McCain has accepted public financing for the remainder of the campaign, the money raised Monday will go to the national Republican Party and state Republican party committees, which will spend it on his behalf.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said while Palin is clearly popular among the Republicans' core constituency, it remains to be seen if she will be as warmly embraced by swing voters in the run-up to the election.
Earlier Monday, Obama broadly accused his Republican rivals of dishonesty as he battled to reclaim ownership of his message of change and stem the post-convention boost in the polls for McCain.
McCain has radically shifted tactics by putting less emphasis on claims to superior experience while moving in on Obama's promise to shake up the way Washington does business.
With his choice of Palin as running mate, McCain signaled he had decided he could not catch Obama by hammering on the Democrat's thin resume on the national stage.