Sen. John McCain took the fight to his Democratic rival Wednesday, using a string of campaign stops in his most precarious battleground state to warn voters against electing Sen. Barack Obama.
On the same day, Obama held a pair of high-wattage rallies, first in Broward County and then in Orlando with former President Bill Clinton, in an effort to hold the lead he now carries in the polls.
"I've got two words for you," Obama told a deafening crowd in Sunrise. "Six days. After decades of broken politics in Washington, eight years of failed policies from George Bush, and 21 months of a campaign that has taken us from the rocky coast of Maine to the sunshine of California, we are six days away from change in America.''
Later Wednesday night, Obama and Clinton appeared together. Clinton has often struggled to offer convincing endorsements of the Democrat who narrowly beat his wife for the nomination, and Wednesday was their first joint appearance on the campaign trail.
Speaking in Kissimmee, Obama said: "Florida, I think you'll agree with me that we all wish that the last eight years looked a lot more like the eight years we had when Bill Clinton was in the White House."
Obama drew huge crowds — 20,000 in Sunrise alone — as he has consistently in Florida. In contrast, McCain appeared to consciously avoid a comparison, by scheduling more intimate affairs.
Florida is a state that McCain cannot afford to lose in his race with Obama to collect 270 electoral votes to claim the presidency. Polls have shown Obama leading by an average of about 3 percentage points, but also by as much as 7 points.
Economic woes have driven independent voters into the Obama column, polls have shown, and McCain used a roundtable discussion with military leaders at the University of Tampa to try to return the focus of the debate to a topic where he has made his name: national security.
McCain said plainly that Obama isn't ready to lead American in a dangerous world.
"The question is whether this is a man who has what it takes to protect America from Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and other grave threats," McCain said. "He has given no reason to answer in the affirmative."
McCain added that national security issues transcend all others: "They mattered before the economic turmoil of the present. They will matter still when it has passed," he said.
But McCain wasn't surrendering ground on the economic message either. In Miami earlier in the day, he spoke with force and urgency during a morning rally, demanding the crowd of 1,500 help him win a must-win state. He continued to cast himself as a champion of the common man and attack Obama as a socialist.
"We've got to bring Florida home in our victory column. And you need to do it between now and Nov. 4," McCain said at a lumber yard on the outskirts of Little Havana. "You know the pundits have written us off. Just like they have done several times before. They were wrong before and they're wrong now."
Saddled by reports of infighting and disagreement, the McCain campaign is trying to present a unified front in the last week. Flanking McCain on stage was a wall of top officials including former Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Florida Sen. Mel Martinez and Gov. Charlie Crist.
McCain's repeated attacks on Obama over the past few weeks were evident at the rally in Miami, where supporters held up a sign that read "Stop socialism. Vote McCain."
McCain says that Obama's tax proposals are akin to socialism because said he wants to "spread the wealth." "We've learned more about Sen. Obama's real goals for the country over the last two weeks than we've learned over the last two years, and that's only because Joe the Plumber asked him a question in Ohio. Well, we're all Joes," said McCain, triggering a roar from the crowd.
"My opponent's massive new tax increase," McCain said, "is exactly the wrong approach in an economic slowdown. "
Obama has aggressively tried to shake the socialism tag, saying McCain is being disingenuous because an overwhelming majority of taxpayers would save under Obama's plan.
In keeping with his aggressive style, McCain returned to the story of Bill Ayers. Speaking to an audience for whom Fidel Castro's name keeps radicalism a hot topic, McCain recounted Obama's acquaintance with Ayers, a founder of the Weather Underground, a radical group that claimed responsibility for bombings between 1970 and 1974.
"Sen. Obama said it was just a guy in the neighborhood," McCain said on Radio Mambi. "We know much more than that. So I don't care much about an old, washed-up, unrepentant terrorist and his wife, who was on the FBI Top 10 wanted list, but we should know about their relationship."
Nerty Piscola, who came to the United States from Cuba in 1969 at age 17, waved a sign of her own. She compared Obama to another young, handsome and charming lawyer — Fidel Castro. "He said change and he said let's take from the rich and give to the poor," she said. "Americans don't know what they are doing."