Riling Muslim leaders, one of John McCain's fellow Vietnam POWs defended the Iraq War Friday by saying, "The Muslims have said either we kneel or they're going to kill us.''
''I don't intend to kneel and I don't advocate to anybody that we kneel. And John doesn't advocate to anybody that we kneel,'' Col. Bud Day added in a conference call with reporters arranged by the Republican Party of Florida on behalf on McCain.
Muslims and Arab-American groups quickly denounced what they described as the ''bigoted'' comments from Day, a Pensacola resident, Medal of Honor recipient and member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attack machine from 2004.
''This is as close to racist as it gets. These are cheap street tactics,'' said Khaled Saffuri, who helped organize Arab outreach for President Bush's 2000 campaign but is now a Libertarian. "Even if this is called a mistake or a slip of the tongue, it shows a bigger problem with racism. McCain and the Republican party should denounce this.''
A Republican party spokeswoman said later that Day acknowledged he misspoke. She said he ''made an unfortunate mistake'' that could offend. The McCain campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Day's description of Muslims overshadowed the intent of the conference call: to discuss a campaign video that reinforced McCain's assault on Democrat Barack Obama's foreign policy credentials as he prepares to visit Iraq.
Obama's campaign, meantime, has been bashing McCain's economic policies. Polls show the economy is the top concern of voters nationwide and in Florida, a must-win state for McCain. Polls suggest Florida voters favor McCain slightly more than Obama, an inverse of national numbers.
The Democrat's campaign assailed McCain on Friday for keeping former Sen. Phil Gramm as an economic advisor. Gramm recently said America is becoming a ''nation of whiners'' that's in a "mental recession.''
Obama's campaign also jumped on a Thursday report in The Miami Herald that showed Florida leads the nation in job loss. Florida maintained its dubious distinction according to federal numbers released Friday, sowing the state lost 78,100 jobs during the past year. Highlighting the new numbers, Obama's campaign said in a Friday statement that ``Florida residents can't afford four more years of President Bush's failed economic policies through John McCain.''
The response from McCain's camp, which bristles at the framing of McCain as a Bush clone on the economy: Obama would raise taxes.
Where the economy is Obama's strong suit, polls suggest the war is a source of credibility for McCain. Voters see him as a better commander in chief. The reduction in violence in recent months helps bolster McCain's argument that the ''surge'' escalation of troops in Iraq is working.
The GOP has assailed Obama for advocating the withdrawal of troops even though he hasn't visited Iraq since January 2006.
''I think it's incredible that he would make up his mind before he ever got the facts,'' Day told reporters. "He certainly has a lot to learn, because when he gets there, those American kids are going to tell him the surge is working.''
While Iraq is tricky ground for Obama, religion has proven most troublesome. Conservative talk-show hosts have made much of his middle name -- Hussein -- and Republicans have portrayed him as unfriendly to Israel.
Obama has tried to distance himself from false rumors he's a Muslim. But when the campaign tried to set the record straight by launching the fightthesmears.com website, Muslims protested that he was calling Islam a ``smear.''
A July Newsweek poll suggests that the ''smear'' is working anyway, with 12 percent of voters falsely believing he was sworn into office in the Senate on a Koran and not a Christian Bible; 26 percent incorrectly saying he was raised a Muslim, and 39 percent incorrectly believing that he went to an Islamic fundmentalist school in Indonesia as a kid.
Muslim leaders say there are about seven million Muslims in the United States, but other estimates put the size of the community around 2.5 million. Many have long complained that they have been vilified as terrorists since the Sept. 11 attacks launched by a segment of radical extremists who don't represent the 1.1 billion Muslims worldwide.
The founder of the American Arab Institute, James Zogby, said Thursday that the ''rhetoric'' of Bush and McCain have furthered misunderstanding of Muslims by frequently pairing ''Islam'' and the words ''terrorist'' and ''fascism'' in stump speeches.
But as for calling Obama a Muslim, Zogby said, Democrat Hillary Clinton's supporters might bear more blame.
''I got those e-mails. I saw them. They were nasty,'' Zogby said. 'They try to sow suspicion and fear by saying: `We don't know him. He's not one of us.' The insult is to all American Muslims. To use 'Muslim' as the the ultimate slur does real damage here and abroad. And it's bigoted.''
But that wasn't Day's intent, said Republican Party of Florida spokeswoman Katie Gordon. ''Clearly he did not intend to alienate the Muslim community in any way. He was talking about terrorists. He mistakenly used the word `Muslim,''' Gordon said. ``That was 30 seconds of a 30-minute call in which he talked eloquently about his and the senator's experience in the war and the senator's leadership qualities.''