ROANOKE, Va. — Democrat Barack Obama on Friday sought to undercut Republican John McCain's support among older voters, warning that McCain wants to cut Medicare to pay for other plans.
McCain, whose aides said Obama was distorting facts to scare seniors, called Obama's tax plans "welfare" and argued that policies the Democrat is promoting as middle-class are more akin to socialism.
Obama delivered his message while campaigning in conservative southwest Virginia, but he intended for it to be heard in other battleground states, including retiree haven Florida, where McCain was making two appearances.
"When you've worked hard your whole life, and paid into the system, and done everything right, you shouldn't have the carpet pulled out from under you when you least expect it and can least afford it," Obama told a crowd of more than 8,000 gathered at the civic center in Roanoke, a Democrat-friendly city of 91,000 in a largely Republican part of the state.
Obama cited a figure of $882 billion in Medicare cuts over a decade, drawn in part from a study by the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress. He said that McCain was considering "drastic" cuts in Medicare equivalent to a 20 percent or more cut in benefits next year.
"It would mean fewer places to get care, and less freedom to choose your own doctors," Obama said. "You'll pay more for your drugs. You'll receive fewer services. You'll get lower quality care. I don't think that's right. In fact, it ain't right."
McCain senior policy adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin said that Obama's criticism was false and "an attempt to simply scare American seniors." He said the kind of Medicare cost cuts the Republican nominee wants to make are in areas such as curbing fraud and unnecessary subsidies, slowing the growth of premiums, and expanding generic drugs and chronic disease management. "No service is being reduced," Holtz-Eakin said.
Obama didn't mention McCain's mitigating promise of a $5,000 per family health-care tax credit, but he criticized McCain's proposal to tax employer-provided health-care benefits.
Obama also sought to answer Republicans' suggestions that his own plans to expand health care would limit people's insurance options.
"If you've got health insurance, the only thing that will change out of my plan is we will lower your premiums," he said. Those who aren't insured now would have access to the type of coverage federal employees and members of Congress get, he said.
It was Obama's seventh visit to southwest Virginia, but the Roanoke Times newspaper said it was the first time a major-party presidential nominee had campaigned in the city since John F. Kennedy in 1960. Virginia hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1964.
Obama continued to use local supporters to help sell him in the state's Appalachian region, where he did poorly in the state's February Democratic primary, although he won statewide.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., told the audience in Roanoke, "They say, 'That person's not like you, that person doesn't understand you,'" but "Barack Obama is like you. He knows what it's like to struggle."
Webb said much has been made of "certain ethnic issues" but while Obama's father was born in Kenya, his mother was from "Kansas by way of Kentucky." Webb said that meant if Obama were elected he would be the 14th president whose family ties go "back to the mountains of this area."
With Obama ahead in polls and 18 days remaining in the contest, McCain was being forced to defend states that earlier in the race looked safe for him. After Florida, McCain had Saturday events scheduled in North Carolina and Virginia, which traditionally support GOP presidential candidates.
Obama leads McCain by 3.2 points in Florida, by 8.1 points in Virginia and by 1.2 points in North Carolina, according to recent polls averaged by RealClearPolitics.com.
Obama told his audience in Virginia to take nothing for granted and reminded them that he'd lost primaries in New Hampshire, Texas and Ohio despite some polls giving him the edge.
"You can't pay attention to the polls," Obama said. "We've got to keep making our case for change."
Appearing at a rally at Florida International University in Miami, McCain and his supporters combined raising questions about Obama's character with creating doubt about his policies.
McCain predicted that Obama tax policies would kill jobs and unfairly impact small businesses.
"Senator Obama says that he wanted to spread your wealth around," McCain said. "When politicians talk about taking your money and spreading it around, you'd better hold onto your wallet. . . . America didn't become the greatest nation on earth by redistributing the wealth. "We became the greatest nation by creating new wealth."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., traveling with McCain, said, 'Where are you taking the country, Senator Obama?"
But McCain appeared to be the candidate on the defensive as he visited Florida and North Carolina, states that President Bush won in 2000 and 2004 and where Obama is mounting aggressive challenges.
Graham shrugged that off.
"I'll beat Michael Phelps swimming before Senator Obama wins North Carolina," he said.
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