MELBOURNE — Sen. John McCain acknowledged in an exclusive interview Friday that he probably would be better positioned in must-win Florida if he had picked Gov. Charlie Crist as his running mate.
The Republican presidential nominee expressed no regrets for choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and said Florida was sure to be a hard-fought state with almost any vice presidential pick — besides Crist.
"Charlie, because he's so popular, he probably would have made a significant difference,'' McCain said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9.
"I think this would have been a battleground state, except for obviously (with) a popular governor as Charlie Crist is,'' McCain said. "Look, this is a tough decision that we made with Sarah Palin. But I also saw Sarah Palin come down here and energize crowds in a way that's pretty remarkable, too."
McCain has been hammering Sen. Barack Obama for his associations with the likes of 1960s radical William Ayers and the controversial community organizing group ACORN. But he declined in the interview to talk about his own relationship with Harry Sargeant, a top McCain fundraiser from Palm Beach County accused Thursday by the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House oversight committee of "war profiteering" and vastly overbilling the Defense Department for fuel deliveries in Iraq.
"I have no idea what those charges are. We had to give back, as you know, some of the contributions that he raised,'' McCain said, referring to $50,000 in campaign contributions bundled by Sargeant. Questions were raised in August about whether the money came from people in California who were later reimbursed.
"I don't know anything about those charges so I can't make a comment on any of that,'' McCain said of the latest allegations, strongly denied by Sargeant. "I don't know what they're talking about. But I'll get back to you if you like."
The full McCain interview airs Sunday on Bay News 9's Political Connections show at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Florida has emerged as among the states most critical to McCain's chances of winning the White House, and he spent Friday campaigning in Miami and in the Republican stronghold of Brevard County. He criticized Obama as a big-spending liberal wanting to redistribute wealth.
"When politicians talk about taking your money and spreading it around, you'd better hold onto your wallet," McCain told the boisterous Melbourne crowd.
Polls show McCain narrowly trailing Obama in the state that he can't afford to lose, though the Arizona senator touted one automated phone survey released Wednesday showing him leading Obama in Florida by 2 points. The average of recent polls has Obama ahead by 3 percentage points.
Highlighting the intense emphasis Obama is placing on Florida, he is scheduled to campaign in Tampa and Orlando on Monday and in Miami and Palm Beach County on Tuesday. Details for the Tampa appearance have not been set.
In the Political Connections interview and before enthusiastic crowds in Miami and Melbourne, McCain again stressed the story of "Joe the plumber," an Ohio man worried that Obama will raise his taxes as he expects to earn more than $250,000 a year. McCain first heralded Joe Wurzelbacher in Wednesday's debate, and the media subsequently reported that he owes backs taxes and lacks a plumber's license.
"People are digging through his personal life and he has TV crews camped out in front of his house. He didn't ask Sen. Obama to come to his house. He wasn't recruited or prompted by our campaign. He just asked a question,'' McCain said. "And Americans ought to be able to ask Sen. Obama tough questions without being smeared and targeted with political attacks."
In Melbourne, McCain supporters snapped up "Hello, My Name is Joe Plumber" T-shirts and cheered when McCain said he spoke with Wurzelbacher earlier in the day.
"His spirits are good, and he's a tough guy. He's what small business people all over this country are about," McCain said. "Send Joe an e-mail and tell him you're with him."
McCain said Obama would send federal spending soaring and promised he would be the candidate to cut the budget. When pressed in the interview whether his plans for a spending freeze would hurt programs like NASA and Everglades restoration, or mean Medicare and Medicaid recipients would be hit, he insisted vaguely that he would find other areas to cut.
"Anybody that doesn't believe there isn't enough money washing around up there doesn't know Washington,'' said McCain, who promised to increase funding for NASA and ensure America will be the first nation to Mars.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.