(Los Angeles Times) - After repeatedly taking shots at Republican Sen. John McCain over the past few days, Sen. Barack Obama denied Thursday that he was taking a victory over Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for granted and pivoting into the fall presidential campaign.
"To the extent that he's initiating this debate a little early -- maybe a little bit prematurely, that is -- that's something we don't want to leave unanswered," Obama said of McCain during a flight between campaign stops in Texas.
"But Senator Clinton is working tirelessly, as is Bill Clinton, in both Ohio and Texas. These races are extraordinarily tight, and I want to make sure that we are doing everything we can to win these next two contests," Obama said. "That's how we've won in the past, is just focusing on what is in front of us."
Asked if pundits were prematurely drafting Clinton's political obituary, the Illinois senator responded by recollecting her surprise victory in the first primary state after finishing third in the Iowa caucuses. "Remember New Hampshire," he told reporters crammed in the aisle of his campaign charter.
McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee, on Thursday went after Obama and Clinton on a day when all three were focusing on the nation's economic woes. Clinton and Obama are battling in major party nominating contests Tuesday in Texas and Ohio, while McCain faces token opposition in those states from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
At Rice University in Houston, McCain accused the Democrats of striking protectionist and isolationist notes in their criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a pact that many in Ohio blame for job losses."Anyone who studies history understands that every time this country or other nations in the world have practiced protectionism, they've paid a very heavy price for it," McCain said.
While conceding flaws in NAFTA, the Arizona senator called himself a "free trader."
"That may be one of the many differences between myself and whoever the nominee of the Democratic Party is," he said.
Clinton, who supported NAFTA when her husband was president, has released a new TV ad calling the pact with Mexico and Canada a "mistake." On a swing through impoverished rural Appalachian areas of southeastern Ohio Thursday, she also slammed Obama on trade, healthcare and foreign affairs.
Her rival "had a chance to take a stand against China and their trade practices that hurt our country with actions like dumping below-market-price steel," the New York senator said after a gathering with supporters in Hanging Rock, a town on the Ohio River."When we had a vote in the Senate on how we could better defend against those kinds of behaviors, Sen. Obama voted against it, and I voted for it," Clinton said.
In Beaumont, Obama took aim mostly at McCain, assailing the Republican's stated willingness, at least theoretically, to keep U.S. troops in Iraq for as long as 100 years."Not only is that not sustainable for our military, which has to go through these constant rotations," Obama said, pacing the stage of the ornate Julie Rogers Theatre at a town hall-style meeting, "but we are spending $12 billion per month. That is money we could be spending here in the United States."
Finnegan reported from Hanging Rock, Ohio, Barabak from Austin and Beaumont. Staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report from Houston.