LYNCHBURG, Va. — Democrat Barack Obama campaigned Wednesday in a conservative stretch of this swing state that's key to his election strategy, telling voters who are more in line with Republican John McCain on social issues that they should vote for Obama because of their economic woes.
At an evening town-hall meeting in Lynchburg — the hometown of the late televangelist Jerry Falwell and his Liberty University — Obama told a mixed-race crowd of stomping, cheering fans that on the economy, "John McCain just doesn't get it."
"Are you better off than you were four years ago? Are you better off than you were eight years ago?" Obama said. "Well, then, why the heck would you want to do the same thing?
"You'd think that things are so bad, that the economy's in such bad shape, that we might not even have to campaign," Obama said. "But the truth is that John McCain is a decorated war hero, and the Republican Party hasn't been very good at governing, but they're very good at running negative ads."
Obama seemed defensive, as if acknowledging that his lead over McCain has shrunk heading into the parties' nominating conventions and accusing Republicans of smearing him out of desperation.
"I don't find myself particularly scary or particularly risky," he said, but conservative critics, including author Jerome Corsi, "just make stuff up. It gets a lot of play on FOX News. After a while people start thinking, 'God, he does have a funny name," or believing false rumors about him they get in emails about Obama's religion or patriotism.
A woman asked: "Do you think you can win by taking the high road? I really worry about that."
"I'm not in this to lose," he replied.
Still, Obama bemoaned that for a year and a half, viral emails have been saying that he's a Muslim, although "I've never been a Muslim. I'm a practicing Christian." He said he'd been baptized and believes that "Jesus Christ is my savior."
"We're going to hit back hard with the truth, and we will answer any lies that are made and we intend to win this election," Obama vowed.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., introducing Obama in Lynchburg, said the state's manufacturing belt "may well hold the key" to how Virginia votes in the presidential race in November because of dissatisfaction with Republican leadership on the economy.
Skip Lamb, a retired health care executive and independent voter who lives in Lynchburg, said that while the surrounding area tends to favor traditional values, there is enough frustration with the Bush administration for Obama to make some converts. Lamb said he decided this summer that he'd support Obama because "I am just so fed up with the present Republican administration. McCain would be a continuation of that."
For his part, McCain was campaigning in New Mexico, where he once again challenged Obama's qualifications to be president.
"Let me be clear: I am not questioning his patriotism; I am questioning his judgment," McCain said at a town hall meeting in Las Cruces. "Sen. Obama has made it clear that he values withdrawal from Iraq above victory in Iraq, even today with victory in sight."
McCain said he'd end the war in Iraq "but when I bring our troops home, they will come home with honor and victory, leaving Iraq secured as a democratic ally in the Arab heartland."
McCain's comments angered Obama's advisers.
"Today we reached the height of hypocrisy, when John McCain questioned Sen. Obama's record," said Obama senior foreign-policy adviser Susan Rice. "Sen. McCain cheered President Bush's decision to take our eye off the ball and start a war that had nothing to do with 9/11," she said in a reference to Iraq.
Earlier, at a gathering in Martinsville, a town of 15,000 near the border with North Carolina, an area where collapsed furniture and textile industries have left high unemployment, Obama said:"John McCain, let's face it, he's got a compelling biography, he's a P.O.W."
Obama praised McCain's service but told the audience that the Arizona senator would continue the economic policies of President Bush. "My job in this election is to say, I honor his service but I don't honor his policies, and I don't honor his politics," Obama said of McCain.
Obama's economic message Wednesday wasn't new, but it's one he's been fine- tuning as he sharpens his criticism of McCain. It's a message geared especially toward voters such as Betty Jo Ray, 53, who lost her textile job five years ago and now works for the local community college where the town-hall meeting was held.
Ray is undecided. She said she opposes abortion, like McCain, and that "I think John McCain has the experience that's needed for our safety."
But she's considering Obama because he represents "new ideas, something new" and because of his background with helping displaced workers and plans to make health insurance more affordable. "There's a lot of people here with no insurance," she said.