DAVENPORT, Iowa — Republican John McCain, the clock ticking down on a chance to narrow Democrat Barack Obama's lead in polls, turned away again Saturday from visceral attacks on his rival to pivot back toward policy differences.
McCain kept his speech in this Iowa river town focused on the economy and other policies, a striking change from just days ago when his campaign redoubled its challenge to Obama over his association with former '60s radical William Ayers. McCain also claimed that American voters didn't really know Obama and his own "radical" views.
McCain's quandary became clearer Saturday: He needs to excite his party's base without inciting them, challenge Obama while being an honorable opponent, and find a game-changing strategy for his faltering campaign without crossing the line.
When an antiwar protester interrupted him, McCain nervously watched what the crowd would do. The protester was hoisted on shoulders and McCain's supporters chanted, "We want John."
"You know, my friends, there's a perfect example of some people who just don't get it," McCain said to thunderous applause.
"As people are trying to stay in their homes, keep their jobs and afford health care, is what they want for us, to yell at each other?" he asked. "No. They want us to sit down together, Republican and Democrat, to work through this terrible time of crisis."
Just days ago, on the stump and in ads, the question was, "Who is Barack Obama?" For the moment, that question was shelved as McCain returned to a note of civility first struck on Friday.
"Which candidate's experience in government and in life makes him a more reliable leader for our country and commander in chief for our troops?" McCain asked. "In short: Who's ready to lead?"
McCain's most serious criticism of Obama on Saturday was over health care, not character. His advisers say that they will aggressively challenge Obama's record but will not try to make it personal. The two are to meet for a third and final debate on Wednesday.