ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama pushed yesterday for a windfall profits tax on oil companies to fund $1,000 emergency rebate checks for consumers besieged by high energy costs, warning voters that Republican rival John McCain would mean another four years of economic troubles.
In a shift of position, Obama also said he would be willing to support limited additional offshore oil drilling if that's what it takes to enact a comprehensive policy for fuel-efficient autos and alternative energy sources.
McCain, also campaigning yesterday in the crucial battleground state of Florida, criticized Obama for choosing private school over public school for his children.
While his children also attended private schools, McCain said the difference is that he favors vouchers that give parents more school choices, while Obama opposes vouchers and is beholden to teachers' unions, both at the expense of inner-city students.
"Everybody should have the same choice Cindy and I and Senator Obama did," McCain told the National Urban League, an influential black organization holding its annual convention in Orlando.
McCain also issued another warning about Obama, who is scheduled to address the same group today. "If there's one thing he always delivers it's a great speech," McCain said. "But I hope you'll listen carefully, because his ideas are not always as impressive as his rhetoric."
While McCain received a respectful welcome from the audience and at times applause, he drew gasps and grumbles during a feisty question-and-answer session. Asked what he would do about crime if elected president, McCain praised Rudy Giuliani, former New York mayor, who was scorned by many civil rights leaders for permitting the city's police department to use overly aggressive tactics against black criminal suspects.
Obama also faced an at-times boisterous crowd at his town hall event in St. Petersburg. He was interrupted by three men who stood up with a banner asking, "What about the black community, Obama?"
In a question-and-answer session, one of the activists complained that Obama had not spoken out forcefully enough on the impact of predatory lending on the black community, Hurricane Katrina's destruction, and the fatal shooting of an unarmed man on his wedding day in New York.
Obama defended himself, saying he had spoken out on issues and citing his record as a community organizer and lawmaker.
He pitched the energy rebate as part of an economic recovery plan that includes a second $50 billion stimulus package designed to save 1 million jobs by helping cash-strapped state governments and by fixing infrastructure.
In trying to link McCain to the unpopular President Bush, Obama noted new government figures showing 51,000 jobs lost last month and 460,000 jobs lost over the last seven months. He posed a version of the familiar political question: "Do you think you are better off than you were four years ago or eight years ago? If you aren't better off, can you afford another four years?"
Obama has been attacked in speeches and ads on offshore drilling by McCain, who also dropped his previous opposition. For the first time yesterday, Obama said he could support a compromise with Republicans and oil companies on offshore exploration - if it included "a careful, well thought-out drilling strategy that was carefully circumscribed to avoid significant environmental damage."
"My interest is in making sure we've got the kind of comprehensive energy policy that can bring down gas prices," Obama said in an interview with The Palm Beach Post. "I don't want to be so rigid that we can't get something done."