HUDSON, WIS. - John McCain brought his weeklong road show on the U.S. economy to western Wisconsin Friday, telling about 500 businesswomen "these are tough times for America" and that a McCain presidency would be best able to turn things around.
The presumptive Republican nominee has spent this week touring battleground states and making his case that lower taxes, budget cutting and energy innovation are the best prescription for righting the nation's faltering economy.
"All of us know the economy is hurting, more than 400,000 Americans have lost jobs since December," he said to the town hall-style gathering at a construction company warehouse.
"The cost of everything -- energy, food -- is rising," he added. "... I have a plan to grow the economy to get moving again."
He focused particularly on the need to hold the line on taxes and achieve energy independence.
"No economic issue is more important than achieving strategic energy independence," which he said can be done by expanding domestic drilling for oil and natural gas, reviving the nuclear power industry and promoting alternative energy technology.
McCain said Barack Obama, his anticipated Democratic opponent, opposes those things.
"For a guy whose official seal says 'Yes, we can,' his agenda has a lot of 'No, we can't,'" he said.
"Senator Obama will raise your taxes," McCain said. "I won't. You raise taxes in a bad economy, you eliminate jobs. I'm not going to let that happen."
McCain held the meeting at J&L Steel Erectors, a contracting firm owned by LouAnne Reger, whom Cindy McCain called "an inspiration to all of us." The Arizona senator called Reger "the greatest warm-up act I've encountered in the thousands of town hall meetings I've held."
A message for women
The invitation-only audience was made up of female business owners and women from various fields, for whom McCain tailored some of his remarks.
"I am committed to equal pay for equal work and equal opportunity in every aspect," he said.
"Women have made enormous progress in recent years," he added, saying that female-led small businesses are "the job engine of the economy."
McCain fielded several questions from the women on several issues, ranging from global warming to energy to illegal immigration.
"Americans are sick and tired of us doing nothing in Washington," he said, referring to nuclear power, and making a point he repeatedly visited. "The approval of Congress is down to 9 percent -- anyone here in that 9 percent? We're down to paid staffers and blood relatives."
Almost inevitably, one question focused on the possibility that McCain will pick Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty as his running mate.
McCain offered what has become his standard response, remaining totally noncommittal while praising Pawlenty as "a wonderful person" who represents "the next generation of leadership in our country."
Differences with Bush
On his Straight Talk Express bus from his hotel in Oakdale to the town hall in Hudson, McCain riffed on several of the same economic points he stressed during his hourlong meeting.
"I don't have a lot to say this morning," he told local reporters on the bus. He then proceeded to make the case for his candidacy, take repeated swipes at Obama and gently distance himself from the Bush administration.
Condemning the "60 percent increase in government spending during the past seven years that we've not found out how to pay for," McCain said that he "strongly criticized the president at the time" Bush proposed spending increases.
"I voted against them time after time. ... Spending has gotten completely out of control," he said.
During the meeting, he also noted that he has parted ways with the White House on climate change and torturing terror suspects.
"I have strong disagreements with the administration on climate change,'' he said. "But I have seen the effects of greenhouse gases on our planet."
He renewed his standing offer to Obama to hold joint town hall sessions. "The American people deserve more than sound bites and the 'gotcha' quote," McCain said. "I hope the American people urge Senator Obama to come to these things."
The Obama campaign tried to counter McCain's appearance by formally opening its campaign office in Hudson and criticizing McCain's record on issues important to women. House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, and Alison Page, a Wisconsin state senate candidate from River Falls, met at the campaign office with local working women.
On the bus, McCain stayed resolutely on message, never slipping into any of the spontaneous wisecracks that have often gotten him into trouble -- and endeared him to journalists.
When pressed about what any president can do to bring down oil prices quickly, he said that additional oil exploration "could bring crude down to some degree" and he revived his proposal for a federal gas tax holiday, which Obama and even his host, Reger, oppose.
"We have to give 'em a little tax relief," he said, "give 'em a break. This thing is hurting the lowest-income Americans."
Bob von Sternberg 612-673-7184
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