Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama savaged John McCain Monday over the Republican's ties to a Texas fundraiser who once joked that rape victims should "lie back and enjoy it."
The presidential candidates also rejoined battle over the economy as Obama outlined his plans to restore US competitiveness with a speech in the rusting heart of Michigan's auto industry.
With McCain assiduously wooing supporters of Obama's vanquished primary foe Hillary Clinton, the Democrat's campaign pounced on the controversy surrounding Texas oilman Clayton "Claytie" Williams.
Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan noted that McCain had Friday canceled a planned event at Williams's home, but was refusing to return more than 300,000 dollars raised by the prominent Republican for McCain's White House bid.
"The only thing more insulting than John McCain's willingness to keep hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash raised by Claytie Williams is his attempt to get away with it by simply changing the venue of his fundraiser.
"It's clear that John McCain is more concerned with dealing with a 'perception problem' than in condemning these despicable remarks or in living up to the straight talk reputation he brags about," Sevugan said.
Friday's fundraising event was canceled after media reports recalled the remark by Williams. It has since reportedly been rescheduled for later in the summer, without the oil industry executive attending.
During an unsuccessful run for the Texas governor's office in 1990, Williams compared rape to bad weather.
"As long as it's inevitable, you might as well lie back and enjoy it," he said.
A McCain spokesman had condemned the "incredibly offensive" remark and in a briefing with reporters Monday, the Arizona senator said his staff had been unaware of it when the fundraiser was scheduled.
But the Obama camp, fending off McCain's charm offensive with female voters in a series of "town hall" meetings, sees political mileage in the controversy as well as in the Republican's commitment to extending the tax-cutting policies of President George W. Bush.
"Instead of reaching for new horizons, George Bush has put us in a hole, and John McCain's policies will keep us there," Obama said to a rapturous audience in the decaying industrial city of Flint, Michigan.
"I want to get out of the hole. I want to take us in a new and better direction," he said.
"I reject the belief that we should either shrink from the challenge of globalization, or fall back on the same tired and failed approaches of the last eight years."
Obama instead outlined proposals to revitalize industrial competitiveness built on improved education, energy investment, new infrastructure and a commitment to "fiscal responsibility and fair trade."
In response, McCain supporters pointed to Obama's remark last week that a "gradual adjustment" in gasoline prices would have been preferable to the skyrocketing increase being endured by US drivers, to improve conservation.
"The truth is Barack Obama fought to protect higher taxes on gas, and it flies in the face of working people struggling at the pump -- Michigan doesn't need weak leadership, we need John McCain's record of real reform," said Candice Miller, a Republican Representative from Michigan.
Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant added: "Barack Obama is wrong. Raising taxes on small businesses and limiting free trade will make America less competitive -- not more competitive.
"Obama can slap whatever label he wants on his tax-and-spend agenda, but it won't create new jobs or promote prosperity," he said.
Last week, in their first full week of head-to-head clashes after Clinton quit the Democratic race, Obama and McCain warred on the economy as Americans reel from home foreclosures, rising fuel prices and job losses.
The Democrats scent opportunity on the economy for November's elections even as McCain tries to portray Obama as a "tax-and-spend liberal" who would be a dangerous bet for US national security.
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