WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — John McCain got warm applause Wednesday in this politically important blue-collar city when he pledged to build more nuclear power plants and support offshore oil drilling — but his town-hall meeting was only half-full.
McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, also took aim at Democratic rival Barack Obama, who's traveling in the Middle East after spending three days in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said that Obama's insistence on setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and his opposition to last year's increase of American troops there were a formula for defeat that Obama endorses to curry favor with antiwar voters.
"Senator Obama said the strategy of the surge would not succeed. He said he was doomed to fail . . . he said to this day the surge has not succeeded," McCain charged. "It is a remarkable failure to understand the facts upon the ground. Apparently Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a campaign."
McCain's chief message, though, involved energy. He stood on the stage at the downtown Kirby Center in front of a huge banner that said "Energy Solutions," and explained how energy is directly tied to national security.
"This is an economic issue, it is an environmental issue and it is a national security issue. We are sending $700 billion of American money overseas to pay for this gasoline to countries that don't like us very much. And some of it ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations. That's just a fact."
During the hour-long town meeting, he reiterated his support for suspending the federal 18.4 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax until Labor Day and got applause, but the bigger cheer came from his drilling proposal.
President Bush lifted the executive ban on offshore drilling last week, and McCain noted that oil prices came down immediately. While the price drop probably had little to do with Bush's decision — the ban remains in effect because Congress hasn't agreed to end it — the audience still liked what McCain had to say.
"I don't know that the gas-tax holiday will have much impact, but at least McCain has a plan," said Josh Recine, a graphic artist. "I'm not sure Obama does."
McCain's town hall meeting was another chapter in his weeklong effort to counter the Illinois senator's high-publicity tour of the war zone, the Middle East and Europe.
McCain has spent the week alternately blasting Obama in national news interviews and conducting town hall meetings in swing areas. While the town halls are hardly likely to shove Obama's trip out of the spotlight, analysts thought they could help McCain in the long run.
"He gets lots of local ink out of them, in places where he needs to do well," said Randall Miller, a professor of history at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
The Arizona senator has been focusing a lot of his recent advertising, notably ads pledging to bring down high energy prices, in this state. And places such as blue-collar Wilkes-Barre, full of lifelong Democrats who preferred Hillary Clinton over Obama in April's Democratic primary, are places that McCain has to win this fall to carry Pennsylvania.
"Economics is a huge issue here," said Clay Richards, the assistant director of the Quinnipiac Poll, which surveys voters in Pennsylvania. Unemployment in May, the most recent data available, was 6.5 percent, up from 5.3 percent a year earlier.
McCain faces a tough fight. President Bush's Pennsylvania approval rating was 24 percent in Quinnipiac's June poll, and McCain trailed Obama statewide by 12 percentage points, though he was behind by only 3 points among whites.
Most of the questions Wednesday concerned energy and the Iraq war, with McCain giving familiar answers. The most passionate question involved Iraq war veterans, as an audience member asked why they weren't getting better medical care or support from the American public.
McCain was sympathetic.
"There's a great difference in the war in which I fought and this war," said McCain, a Vietnam veteran who was a prisoner of war for five and a half years. "In the war where I fought, Americans were divided. I look you in the eye and tell you no matter how Americans feel about the war, they love the men and women who are serving in the military."
He won over the crowd by not only pledging support for war-related illnesses but also by promising to address a "routine need a veteran has. Rather than go to the (Department of Veterans Affairs) and stand in line and have an appointment, why not give them a plastic card and let them go to the provider of their choice?"