McCain campaign keeps its focus on Pa.

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DOWNINGTOWN, Pa. -- Sen. John McCain took a post-debate victory lap in this hotly contested Philadelphia suburb yesterday, reveling in the cheers of more than a thousand supporters in a cavernous indoor sports complex.

His win was self-declared, but that assessment was enthusiastically seconded by the partisans who greeted him and his wife, Cindy, in their second visit to the crucial region in three days. With the senator's mother, Roberta McCain, and his friend, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-independent, they walked on stage to the theme from the "Rocky" movie and the cheers of a crowd waving signs and snapping cell-phone photos.

"My friends, we had a good debate last night. I thought I did pretty well," said Mr. McCain.

"The real winner last night was Joe the plumber," he added, doing his best to prolong the 15 minutes of fame he had imparted to the Toledo businessman he mentioned repeatedly Wednesday night. "Joe's the man. He won, and small business won across America, because the American people are not going to let Barack Obama raise your taxes in a tough economy."

"You know what Senator Obama said to Joe?" Mr. McCain asked his audience, giving his capsule version of last week's encounter on a post-rally rope line. "[Obama said] he wanted to spread his wealth around. America didn't become the greatest nation on Earth by spreading the wealth; we became the greatest nation by creating new wealth."

At that, shouts of "Joe, Joe, Joe" mixed with the crowd's applause. Another chant erupting intermittently throughout the rally was "No-bam-a, O-bam-a."

The two candidates, perhaps for the last time in the campaign, were to share a stage again last night at the traditional Al Smith Dinner in New York City.

Mr. McCain also was to test his diplomatic skills last night on the David Letterman show. The senator canceled a prior appearance the week before the first presidential debate -- when he suspended, then restarted his campaign as Congress was debating its Wall Street rescue package. The jilted talk-show host has regularly derided the GOP nominee in his monologue ever since.

Beyond his First Plumber references, Mr. McCain's Downingtown remarks were largely a reprise of the stump speech he debuted Monday in Virginia.

Repeating his implicit declaration of independence from an unpopular fellow Republican president, he said, "We can't spend the next four years as we have the last eight, waiting for our luck to change." Revisiting his line from the debate, he added: "I'm not George Bush. If he [Obama] wanted to run against George Bush, he should have run four years ago."

While defending his mortgage relief proposals, Mr. McCain continued to distance himself from the Bush administration, as he said, "The secretary of the Treasury is not doing enough to help people stay in their homes."

Echoing Mr. McCain's positive assessment of his debate performance was Chuck Moore of Paoli, who said, "He went on the offensive, all on the facts." Mr. Moore said he was drawn to the Republican because "he's honest," adding: "I do not believe Senator Obama's honest. I'm from Chicago originally, and I would not want Chicago politics in the United States."

Janet Colmery, a Chester County native visiting from her home in Florida, said she favors Mr. McCain because "he has proven that he puts America first. There are just too many unanswered questions about Obama."

Mr. McCain's debate appearance was bracketed by two Pennsylvania rallies separated by a short drive. He interrupted debate preparations Tuesday for a stop in Montgomery County. His first post-debate stop was in Chester County, another of the vote-rich ring of communities that are a pivotal battleground in the state. Once securely Republican, they have trended Democratic over the last decade, producing majorities for Gov. Ed Rendell and presidential nominees Al Gore and John Kerry.

"The state of Pennsylvania will decide again who's the next president of the United States," Mr. McCain predicted. "I need your vote."

Underscoring the GOP's laser focus on the state, NBC's Chuck Todd reported yesterday that Pennsylvania is now the only state won by Mr. Kerry in 2004 in which both the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee are still spending money. Tomorrow, Mr. McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, returns to the state for a Lancaster rally that follows recent appearances in Johnstown and Scranton.

Mr. McCain's self-serving assessment of his debate performance was at odds with early polls of the audience reaction. Polls by CNN and CBS showed big majorities choosing the Democrat as the winner. Another survey, conducted by Insider Advantage for the Web site Politico.com, also gave Mr. Obama the win, but by only 49 percent to 46 percent, which was within the survey's margin of error.

Recent polls in Pennsylvania are sharply at odds with the enthusiastic welcome the Republican received in Downingtown yesterday. Despite relentless GOP attention to the state, Mr. Obama has moved into the lead here by consistent double-digit margins.

"A little more straight talk: We've got 19 more days to do, and we're down 6 points," Mr. McCain said. Claiming that his opponent was already "measuring the drapes" in the Oval Office, he said, "My friends, we've got 'em just where we want 'em."


Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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