Obama Fires Back At McCain

A day after John McCain spoke to the group, Barack Obama addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Orlando, Fla. He told McCain to stop questioning his patriotism and character, and he hit the Arizona senator on his support for Iraq and Pakistan.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. Yesterday, it was friendly territory for John McCain. Today, for Barack Obama, that same territory was simply polite.

Senator Obama took his turn addressing the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He went on the attack after Senator McCain's criticism yesterday of his judgment on foreign affairs and military matters.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson was at the convention in Florida.

MARA LIASSON: Obama's delivery was low-key and professorial, but his words were tough. He accused McCain of using a typical laundry list of political attacks, including the suggestion that Obama puts personal ambition before country.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): One of the things that we have to change in this country is the idea that people can't disagree without challenging each other's character or their patriotism. I have never suggested…

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. OBAMA: I have never suggested and never will that Senator McCain picks his positions on national security based on politics or personal ambition. I've not suggested it because I believe that he genuinely wants to serve America's national interests. Now it's time for him to acknowledge that I want to do the same.

LIASSON: Obama returned again to his big debate with McCain about Iraq. He pointed out that the Iraqi government favors Obama's 16-month timeline for withdrawing combat troops. He said the central front in the war on terror was Afghanistan, and that as commander-in-chief, his first priority would be to take out terrorists who threaten America and to finish the job against the Taliban.

Sen. OBAMA: A year ago, I said that we must take action against bin Laden and his lieutenants if we have them in our sights and Pakistan cannot or will not act.

Senator McCain criticized me and claimed that I was for, quote, "bombing our ally." So for all this talk about following Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, Senator McCain refused to join my call to take out bin Laden across the Afghan border. Instead, he spent years backing a dictator in Pakistan who failed to serve the interests of his own people.

LIASSON: Obama also addressed the conflict in Georgia. Initially, he was slower than McCain to condemn the Russian invasion, but his stance has gotten tougher over time.

Sen. OBAMA: Russia must know that its actions will have consequences. It will imperil the civil nuclear agreement and Russia's standing in the international community, including the NATO-Russia Council and Russia's desire to participate in organizations like the WTO and OECD. And finally, we must help Georgia rebuild that which has been destroyed. That is why I'm proud to join my friend, Senator Joe Biden, in calling for additional $1 billion in reconstruction assistance for the people of Georgia.

LIASSON: The mention of Biden was a reminder of the other big political story this week, the feverish speculation about who Obama will pick as his vice president.

Although the Obama campaign has been extremely tight-lipped about the choice, Biden is thought to be high on Obama's short list. The two senators have a close working relationship on the Foreign Relations Committee. Biden just returned from a trip to Georgia, and the conflict there may have helped his stock rise in the veepstakes, as Obama considers the importance of choosing someone with foreign policy experience.

McCain has been hammering Obama for his lack of foreign policy experience, and a new Quinnipiac poll suggests that the recent conflict in Georgia has helped McCain. Although the overall horse race has not changed much - Obama's still ahead by five points - the poll shows McCain favored 55 to 27 percent as the candidate best qualified to deal with Russia.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Orlando.

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