SARASOTA — With time running out and trouble in the polls, John McCain barnstormed Central Florida on Thursday, warning voters that Barack Obama "will say anything to get elected," then crush small businesses and the jobs they provide by raising taxes.
In a nod to Florida's hard-hit housing market, McCain also highlighted his proposal for the government to take over shaky mortgages and let homeowners refinance at affordable rates.
"I call on the administration to act now and buy up these home-loan mortgages and keep people in their homes," McCain told cheering supporters at an Ormond Beach building supply yard, which has laid off 130 of its 180 employees because of the housing slump.
"And why isn't the secretary of the Treasury ordering them to do that?"
During an interview Thursday as his bus, the Straight Talk Express, rolled west on Interstate 4, McCain defended the idea on grounds that foreclosures hurt surrounding home values. He also said many people were guided into unaffordable loans by unscrupulous mortgage brokers and deserve help.
"There's always a personal responsibility. There's also such a thing as shell games, and such a thing as treating people like suckers, and taking advantage of people who don't have the knowledge and background to handle such things," he said.
Reporters also asked about news this week that the Republican National Committee spent $150,000 outfitting Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin shortly after she became his running mate.
"She needed clothes at the time. They'll be donated at end of this campaign. They'll be donated to charity," McCain said curtly.
Asked if he was surprised at the amount spent, McCain said, "Nothing surprises me."
Asked if the RNC buys his clothes, he said, "No, they do not."
While at least one recent poll shows McCain slightly leading Obama in Florida, several more show him trailing. The fact he held his last rally of the day in Sarasota, a Republican stronghold, hints at the campaign's concerns, though McCain expressed confidence as he campaigned with Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez. The campaign also began airing a new radio ad featuring Crist warning that Obama will raise taxes and hurt small businesses.
"We have energized volunteers," McCain said. "Well get our vote out. We'll get it out."
The trip from Daytona Beach to Sarasota was dubbed the "Joe the Plumber Keep Your Wealth" tour, and McCain spent most of his time in rallies, interviews and meetings with small business owners arguing that Obama's goal is to "spread the wealth" — a line that always draws boos — by raising taxes for those clearing at least $200,000 a year.
"Sen. Obama is more interested in controlling who gets a piece of the pie than he is in growing the pie," McCain told about 3,500 people at a boisterous rally in Sarasota. "Sen. Obama may say he is trying to soak the rich, but a lot of the middle class is going to get wet."
In Plant City, McCain greeted crowds at Parksdale Farms, a rambling open air produce, sundae and Florida tchotchke stand.
Appearing buoyant, McCain rushed to the fencing separating him from the crowds, shaking hands with fans who occasionally broke into chants of "Go, McCain, Go."
Then, with Crist, McCain ducked inside the stand and started shaking hands with the staff before being led through the store by its owner, Jim Meeks.
He shook hands with shoppers who seemed alternately stunned and thrilled. Spying a gentleman wearing a cap declaring, "USS Submarine Veteran," McCain reached out his hand and said, "Thanks for your service."
"Thank you, too," replied James Tagliarini, 67, of Plant City.
McCain worked his way through the store while being trailed by a young woman carrying a tray of strawberry shortcakes.
She set it down at a long table where McCain joined several small business owners, and the senator appeared to get a dab of whipped cream on his finger.
He licked it off. "Boy, that stuff," he said. "These low-cal meals. …"
He looked pretty happy.
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.