MIAMI — Sen. John McCain zipped through the Everglades on an airboat Friday, using what he deemed "a great natural treasure of the world" to highlight his environmental credentials and distance himself from President Bush.
But for the second straight day, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee was assailed by Democrats who say he does not care enough about issues that matter to Florida.
On a blazing afternoon that his campaign probably envisioned as a great photo-op, McCain was forcefully explaining why he opposed a bill last year that included $2-billion for the Everglades.
He pointed out that the money was tucked into a $23-billion water project plan that included money for more than 900 other projects.
"The fact is, this is the way we do business in Washington. We take a worthy project and we load it up with pork barrel and unnecessary projects," McCain said, flanked by Gov. Charlie Crist and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.
Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, joined the Florida congressional delegation in supporting the bill. But he sought to portray the difference as a sign of McCain's independence.
"I admit, I was being parochial," Diaz-Balart said in a hastily arranged conference call with reporters as McCain's bus was on its way to the Everglades. "Sen. McCain … does what he believes is right for the entirety of the nation."
McCain pledged that if elected he would urge Congress to take up a focused bill providing at least $2-billion for the Everglades.
In their own conference call, surrogates for Democratic challenger Sen. Barack Obama said McCain did not understand the issue.
"This has serious consequences," said former Florida Gov. and Sen. Bob Graham, saying it has further set back efforts to clean up the Everglades.
"They don't get it," McCain told reporters. "They don't get it that the American people are fed up, they are fed up with the waste of their dollars and the out-of-control spending that is going to come to a halt when I'm the president."
McCain noted that Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. — a prominent Obama supporter — opposed the bill for reasons similar to his.
Graham also reprised the Democrats' Thursday attack on McCain for rejecting calls for a national catastrophe fund.
Every Florida politician including Crist supports creation of a fund, putting them at odds with McCain. But McCain said he favors a more regional approach, where coastal states would pay into the fund.
Democrats also questioned how McCain could portray himself as a defender of the Everglades while a major fundraiser in Florida, developer Al Hoffman, has fought efforts to protect the so-called River of Grass. Democrats said McCain should return the money Hoffman has raised. "It's not worthy of reaction," McCain said. With a smile, he dropped the name of a Chicago developer whose relationship with Obama has caused problems.
The attacks underscore how vital Florida is in the presidential campaign.
Crist, whose endorsement of McCain in the Florida primary provided a boost to the once-struggling campaign, said he did not think the issues will hurt McCain in the state.
The visit to the Everglades, on a typically sweltering June afternoon, "obviously shows his commitment and concern," Crist said.
The scuffle with Democrats aside, the visit was intended to call attention to McCain's reputation as an environmentally focused Republican.
McCain bucked Bush in proposing a program to cut greenhouse emissions by 60 percent by midcentury and often talks about global warming, issues that contrast with the outlook of the president.
In 2002, he worked with Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts on a plan that would have raised the fuel standard for cars and light trucks to 36 miles per gallon by 2015.
Yet critics say McCain has a mixed record and has opposed other efficiency measures. The Obama campaign has said the "cap and trade" plan to cut emissions does not go far enough.
"I would just like to point out that since 2001 I have been heavily engaged in this issue," McCain said. "I know of no legislative action or any serious proposal made by Sen. Obama. I have had hearings. I have fought the administration tooth and nail," a final and not-so-subtle reference to President Bush.
Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.