McCain on stump now sharper and punchier


TERRENCE BROTHERTON had been waiting for almost two hours for John McCain, and as he looked up at a brooding, grey cloud above the crowd, the retired air force officer was worried it might rain on his hero's open-air rally.

Wearing a T-shirt and shorts with his improbably chestnut hair cropped in a pudding bowl, Brotherton was clutching a copy of McCain's book, Character is Destiny.

"John McCain's a man of character. You take a look at his positions. He's courageously stood for America while his opponents stood for their careers. Instead of following the polls, he follows his heart as to what America needs," he said.

"What do I think about Obama? Obama knows what Obama needs to do to win a campaign. He pushes the right buttons for a campaign. Whatever sounds like people want to hear, he says it. And he's for himself, as opposed to McCain, who's for others. There's a clear distinction." The rain held off long enough for McCain to stride onstage to the theme from Rocky, grinning and waving at supporters who carried signs with messages like "My son is a Marine and I'm voting for McCain" and "America can't $ Obama".

Behind him, one man held a sign saying "Phil the Bricklayer" and a woman carried one saying "Rose the Teacher".

These were tributes to Ohio's Joe Wurzelbacher, who as "Joe the Plumber" has become the last-minute star of the presidential campaign after berating Barack Obama over the Democrat's plans to raise taxes on people earning more than $250,000 a year.

Obama told the plumber, who is not in that income bracket yet, but hopes to start his own business, that he believes that everyone benefits if you "spread the wealth around".

"We learned more about Senator Obama's plans from Joe's question than we've learned in months of speeches by Senator Obama," McCain told the crowd.

"He believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that grow our economy and create jobs and opportunities for all Americans."

McCain's stump speech has become sharper and punchier in the closing days of the campaign as he seeks to overturn Obama's poll lead and overcome the Democrat's massive financial and organisational advantage. Gone are the rambling, folksy remarks and the old jokes that characterised McCain's town hall meetings and the candidate now uses a teleprompter, holding rigidly to his prepared message.

A key part of that message is that Obama will raise taxes, strangle economic innovation and put obstacles in the way of the pursuit of the American dream.

"As Joe has now reminded us all, America didn't become the greatest nation on earth by giving our money to the government to 'spread the wealth around'. In this country, we believe in spreading opportunity, for those who need jobs and those who create them. And that is exactly what I intend to do as president of the United States," McCain said.

If McCain's campaign was going well, however, he wouldn't have to spend any time in Virginia, a state that has not backed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964. But the state has become friendlier to Democrats in recent years as liberal Northern Virginia has grown in population.

The last two governors have been Democrats and in 2006, Jim Webb unseated Republican senator George Allen. This year, former governor Mark Warner is almost certain to pick up for the Democrats the senate seat his Republican namesake John Warner is vacating.

Obama is outspending McCain in Virginia by a margin of at least three to one in television advertising and the Democrat has 50 offices in the state and a small army of staff and volunteers.

"They've got an unbelievable organisation. It's a machine," acknowledges Brotherton.

McCain's supporters in Woodbridge are confident, however, that polls putting Obama up to 10 points ahead in Virginia are simply wrong and that McCain's fighting spirit will carry the day.

"I think he has integrity and he has real experience and I don't think this is a time for an amateur. It frightens me that we could have an amateur in charge," said Jean O'Grady, a law library director.

"Everyone is hypnotised and they're listening to this beautiful haiku. But what's going to happen if he does get elected?" The audience booed every mention of the media, but there was little raw hostility towards Obama and O'Grady said she thought for a long time about supporting him.

"You know, I've been very torn because it is a historic moment. And I think it's a wonderful idea. I wish I felt that the first black man running for president was someone I could support and I think about this, having been a Democrat most of my life," she said.

"I think about him and his experience and all the things we don't know about him. And I can't do that. And I would love to be able to participate in that historic moment. But right now, with John McCain, I love his character and I admire him. He's a fighter."