TAMPA — Only in a topsy-turvy presidential election like this one would thousands of ardent Republicans cheer for more government regulation.
But that was precisely the scene Tuesday at the Tampa Convention Center as Republican presidential candidate John McCain campaigned as a populist crusader against greed and lax government oversight.
"We are going to put an end to the reckless conduct, corruption and unbridled greed that have caused a crisis on Wall Street,'' McCain told more than 2,000 people who gathered for his first Tampa Bay campaign rally since winning Florida's primary in January. "Let me give you some straight talk: The top of our economy is broken. We have seen self-interest, greed, irresponsibility and corruption undermine the hard work of the American people. It is time to set things right."
Amid collapsing financial institutions and wild fluctuations in the stock market, the economy has pushed pigs, lipstick and Sarah Palin's record into the background as both McCain and Democrat Barack Obama scramble to convince voters that they understand the economic anxiety permeating the electorate and are best equipped to deal with it.
McCain, 72, faced criticism Monday for saying in Jacksonville the "fundamentals of the economy are strong," but in Tampa on Tuesday he stressed to the enthusiastic crowd that by fundamentals he meant the American worker. And in a series of TV interviews, he called for a commission to examine the causes of the country's financial mess, much like the 9/11 Commission.
Campaigning in Colorado on Tuesday, Obama dismissed that as passing the buck and said a McCain presidency would amount to a continuation of the Bush administration's economic policies.
"If you want to understand the difference between how Sen. McCain and I would govern as president, you can start by taking a look at how we've responded to this crisis,'' Obama, 47, said. "Because Sen. McCain's approach was the same as the Bush administration's — support ideological policies that made the crisis more likely, do nothing as the crisis hits and then scramble as the whole thing collapses.''
McCain is better known for national security, but is ceding no ground on the economy, the top concern of voters. The Arizona senator also generally has been a deregulation advocate — and Democrats note his former top economic adviser, former Sen. Phil Gramm, in 1999 led the charge to deregulate the financial industry — but he drew cheers Tuesday by calling for greater regulation of Wall Street.
"Too many firms on Wall Street have been able to count on casual oversight by regulatory agencies in Washington. And there are so many of those regulators that the responsibility for oversight is scattered, unfocused and ineffective,'' said McCain, whose 17-minute speech was interrupted at times by chants of "USA! USA!" and "Drill, baby, drill!"
"Among others, we've got the SEC, the CFTC, the FDIC, the SPIC and the OCC. But for all their big and impressive sounding names, the fact is they haven't been doing their job right, or else we wouldn't have these massive problems on Wall Street," McCain said.
Tampa Bay is the biggest battleground region in Florida, and McCain has spent limited time here since winning Florida's Republican primary Jan. 29. In April, he made a health care speech at the University of South Florida while in the area for a private fundraiser.
He was joined Tuesday on stage by his wife, Cindy, and former Gov. Bob Martinez, Sen. Mel Martinez and former U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, who ran for vice president with Bob Dole in 1996.
The real crowd-drawer on the Republican ticket, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, did not join McCain in Florida, but enthusiasm for her was clear among the crowd snapping up Palin campaign buttons and wielding signs like "Vote 4 Trig's mom."
Palin is expected to make her first Florida campaign appearance Sunday at the Villages, a Republican stronghold in north-central Florida.
David Alan, 35, of Tampa wore a shirt declaring "Sarah Palin Is My Homegirl" and carried a sign that read "McCain Palin Foshizzle." Palin shows the GOP is not just a party of "old, white, crusty people," said Alan, who is white.
Dianna Peffly, a 40-year-old registered Democrat from Seminole, signed up at the rally to volunteer for McCain.
"I was a big Clinton supporter," she said of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. "And I really love Sarah Palin, and everything she stands for. Together they make a great team."
Before the rally McCain stopped at the South Tampa home of Republican media consultant Adam Goodman, where he filmed a commercial.
Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report, which includes information from Bloomberg News. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.