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McCain to Minn.: ‘Country first or Obama first’

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By BRIAN BAKST

Associated Press Writer

BLAINE, Minn. (AP) — Looking to capitalize on a suddenly close Minnesota race and reassure voters anxious about economic jitters, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain told a massive crowd Friday that his administration wouldn’t be afraid to ruffle feathers in Washington or on Wall Street.

McCain and running mate Sarah Palin spoke from the head of a jam-packed airport hanger in Anoka County, a critical area of a surprisingly competitive state. Their ticket is about even with that of Democrat Barack Obama and Joe Biden in a state with an unrivaled string of backing Democrats for president.

"A vote for Senator Obama will guarantee higher taxes, fewer jobs and a bigger federal government. His policies will deepen our recession," McCain said. "A vote for me will guarantee that the forces that brought down our economy will be out of business. I will end the corrupt practices on Wall Street and the backroom deals in Washington, D.C."

"That’s how we see the election," he added, "Country first or Obama first."

The McCain campaign estimated the crowd at 13,000, citing the Transportation Security Administration.

It was McCain’s fourth Minnesota appearance since June, including his nomination acceptance speech two weeks ago during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

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Much has changed since then: A pair of polls released this week had McCain and Obama tied or within the margin of sampling error, a far cry from a double-digit lead Obama once held. Another figure looming large, however, is the state’s jobless rate, which reached its highest point since 1985 at 6.2 percent last month.

State officials said Thursday that employers shed 3,100 jobs in August, putting the losses at 16,300 for the year.

In his speech, McCain promoted his economic recovery package that he said would mean tax cuts for individuals and businesses and said his administration would do more to police a financial services industry that has seen stunning bank failures.

As McCain and Palin held their rally, Obama’s campaign gathered supporters for a noontime rally in Minneapolis also focused on the economy. The Obama campaign said 3,500 people showed up. His campaign is also promising middle-class tax cuts and more regulation of the banking sector.

Jeff Blodgett, state director for the Obama campaign, downplayed the polls that reflect a deadlocked race. He attributed it to a bounce from a convention that resulted in extensive local coverage of the McCain campaign.

"That spark and razzle dazzle that came out of St. Paul carried them well for a week and a half. I’m not sure they can re-ignite that with just one appearance," Blodgett said. "At this point people need to start paying attention to what exactly they are saying. What is John McCain proposing to get our economy turned around?"

History favors Obama. Despite failing to elect a Democratic governor in more than two decades, the party has delivered the state’s Electoral College votes for their ticket in every election since 1976.

Still, McCain told his audience that "with this kind of enthusiasm and this kind of support, we will win the state of Minnesota."

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He was introduced by Palin, the Alaska governor who has gone from obscurity to campaign crowd builder.

Palin’s presence was a big draw for Katy Onstad, 25, of Andover.

"She has given this year a new energy," Onstad said. "It definitely jazzed up the whole McCain campaign."

A smattering of people wore hockey jerseys, a nod to Palin’s background as a hockey mom turned politician. It also fit with Minnesota’s self-annointed reputation as "The State of Hockey." One of the warmup speakers was University of Minnesota hockey coach Don Lucia.

Nathan Haase, 24, said Obama was his motivation for showing up — his opposition to the Illinois senator, that is. Haase, of Maplewood, doubted Obama’s readiness to hold the Oval Office.

"I don’t want to spend the next four years getting to know who my president is. He just came out of the woodwork," Haase said. "It’s a little too soon for a person we barely know."

That’s the message Rick Wagner, 53, said McCain needs to drive home in the campaign stretch run.

"He needs to keep hammering on the fact that Obama doesn’t have the experience to lead," Wagner said. "John McCain has clear solutions. He’s got clear ideas. He’s the real deal."

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Brian Bakst can be reached at bbakst(at)ap.org

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