NEW ORLEANS — Republican John McCain welcomed Democrat Barack Obama to the fall campaign for the White House on Tuesday with a blistering attack on his judgment and a charge that he "voted to deny funds to the soldiers who have done a brilliant job" in Iraq.
"Americans ought to be concerned about the judgment of a presidential candidate who says he's ready to talk, in person and without conditions, with tyrants from Havana to Pyongyang, but hasn't traveled to Iraq to meet with General (David) Petraeus, and see for himself the progress he threatens to reverse," McCain said as his rival wrapped up the Democratic nomination.
In a speech intended to mark the start of the general election, McCain also sought to deflect Obama's frequent claim that the Republican is "running for President Bush's third term" because of his support for the Iraq war and extending the president's tax cuts.
"The American people didn't get to know me yesterday, as they are just getting to know Senator Obama," McCain said. "They know I have a long record of bipartisan problem solving. They've seen me put our country before any president — before any party — before any special interest — before my own interest. They might think me an imperfect servant of our country, which I surely am. But I am her servant first, last and always."
The four-term Arizona senator also criticized Obama for voting for Bush's energy bill, which he said gave more breaks to the oil industry.
"I opposed it because I know we won't achieve energy independence by repeating the mistakes of the last half century. That's not change we can believe in," McCain said, mocking Obama's campaign refrain that he offers a fresh direction for a country weary of the status quo.
McCain said that both he and Obama promise a bipartisan approach to fixing the country's problems.
"But one of us has a record of working to do that and one of us doesn't," McCain said. "He is an impressive man, who makes a great first impression. But he hasn't been willing to make the tough calls; to challenge his party; to risk criticism from his supporters to bring real change to Washington. I have."
McCain wrapped up the GOP nomination in March and has spent the past few months laying the groundwork for the general election as the Democratic race continued between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
With Obama assured the Democratic Party nod, McCain prime-time speech on Tuesday was designed to steal some of Obama's thunder and lay out his case against Obama. The Republican chose to deliver it in suburban New Orleans, a searing symbol of government inaction after Hurricane Katrina, to distance himself from Bush. McCain's core argument is that he offers a record of reform and the kind of change that the country needs, while Obama offers empty promises of a new direction and the wrong kind of change.
"No matter who wins this election, the direction of this country is going to change dramatically," McCain said. "But, the choice is between the right change and the wrong change; between going forward and going backward."
McCain also used the speech to cast the first-term Illinois senator as lacking the experience and judgment to be a wartime commander in chief and he argued anew that the Democrat's calls for a troop withdrawal from Iraq would endanger the United States.
The Navy veteran and former Vietnam prisoner of war noted that Obama opposed the troop-increase strategy that has been credited with helping curb violence and pointedly accused Obama of withholding money from troops.
"Senator Obama opposed the new strategy, and, after promising not to, voted to deny funds to the soldiers who have done a brilliant and brave job of carrying it out," McCain said.
Obama previously had opposed a deadline for troop withdrawal, but shifted position under pressure from the Democratic Party's liberal wing and now pledges to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2009. In contrast, McCain staunchly supports the Iraq war and opposes a quick pullout.
A year ago, Obama voted against legislation to finance the Iraq war because it did not include a timetable for withdrawing troops. At the time, Obama said the funding would give Bush "a blank check to continue down this same, disastrous path."
Obama, who has not been to Iraq since 2006, has said he'd be willing to meet with leaders of countries such as Cuba and North Korea.