PANAMA CITY — Sen. John McCain attacked Sen. Barack Obama in Orlando as a hostage to teachers unions and defended a TV ad mocking his rival as a superficial celebrity before cozying up to a star of his own Friday evening.
"Can I get a yeehaw?" country singer John Rich shouted before about 1,000 people gathered for an outdoor concert. Rich played his new song, Raisin' McCain, as the Arizona Republican took the stage and urged the crowd to "get out the vote."
But the humid, honky-tonk atmosphere belied the uglier shade that the presidential race took on this week with negative TV ads and the injection of the explosive issue of race.
On Wednesday, Obama told supporters in Missouri that Republicans would try to scare voters because he doesn't "look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills." McCain's campaign responded by saying that Obama was playing the "race card," something Obama denies.
McCain stood by the remark Friday and denied that his ads and statements have violated his pledge to run a respectful campaign.
"He brought up the issue. I responded to it because I'm disappointed, and I don't want the issue to be part of this campaign," he told reporters during a pre-concert news conference in which he once again called for offshore oil drilling.
The sparring continued throughout the day as both candidates campaigned across Florida. McCain released a Web-only ad that derides Obama as a presumptuous, messiah-like figure.
"We're going to display a sense of humor in this campaign," McCain said. The Obama campaign called it "juvenile."
Polls show the race as a dead heat, and the stakes for McCain are huge: To win the presidency, he must win the Sunshine State.
To that end, Republican-rich North Florida must deliver big to offset the expected large turnout for Obama in South Florida and the Tampa Bay area.
"Florida will be a swing state, my friends," McCain told hundreds at the concert. "The Panhandle will matter. ... Let me just say I need your support. I've always put my country first."
Comments from the crowd revealed one of the issues that has dogged McCain since he got into the race: Conservatives don't think he is conservative enough.
"Am I excited about him? Hmmm," said Jonathan Ferrell, 36, a medical supplies salesman. "I'm excited about the Republican Party, not John McCain. But he's better than a Democrat."
Former state House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, predicted the Panhandle will turn out in droves for McCain. "Support is not soft up here," he said.
Away from the spotlight, McCain and Gov. Charlie Crist attended a fundraiser at a locally renowned seafood restaurant, Capt. Anderson's, that generated an estimated $750,000.
Speaking before an influential African-American group in Orlando, McCain called for expanding private school vouchers and accused Obama of opposing them and being captive to teachers unions.
"My opponent talks a great deal about hope and change, and education is as good a test as any of his seriousness," McCain told the National Urban League. "If Sen. Obama continues to defer to the teachers unions instead of committing to real reform, then he should start looking for new slogans."
Focusing on vouchers was a shrewd move for McCain; blacks are more receptive to the idea than other Democrats. The overall response to McCain in Orlando, however, was muted. He drew gasps for praising former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was accused of using tough police tactics in a quest to clean up his city.
And McCain said affirmative action was "in the eye of the beholder," not mentioning he supports an anti-affirmative action referendum on the ballot in Arizona.
Obama's campaign called the speech "another dishonest attack" and cited Obama's support for a charter school in Illinois as well as pushing for an "army" of new teachers.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.