WASHINGTON (AP) _ Despite a slip in the polls following Barack Obama's flashy foray overseas, Republican John McCain on Monday was sticking with his favorite campaign format, small gatherings where he is at ease with an informal give-and-take with voters.
McCain was having lunch with supporters in Bakersfield, California, where he pressed for lifting the quarter-century ban on drilling in U.S. coastal waters as a means of reducing American dependence on imported oil.
Obama, who opposes offshore drilling, was in Washington to consult with economic experts about ways to cap the downward spiral of the country's economy, the No. 1 issue among Americans as they decide which candidate they will vote for in November.
The Democrat on Monday told economic advisers he would move “rapidly and vigorously'' to put in place new incentives to revive an economy that's losing jobs and ailing on almost every front.
Obama met with about a dozen advisers to talk about his approach to dealing with a sour economy. Among them were the head of the labor group AFL-CIO John Sweeney and former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. He was focusing on domestic issues after a week's tour of the Middle East and Europe.
The latest Gallup Tracking Poll released Monday shows the Democrat ahead by eight points _ 48 percent to McCain's 40 percent _ among registered voters in the presidential race. On Sunday, Obama held a nine-point lead in the poll, his largest margin over McCain since Gallup began tracking the general election race in March.
While Obama said on Sunday he wanted to return to a debate on economic issues _ growing joblessness, high fuel costs, rising food prices and a crisis in home financing _ McCain kept up attacks on his opponent's qualifications to lead the country in a time of war, saying his rival “doesn't understand what's at stake'' in Iraq.
In one of the most striking lines of the campaign, McCain said during a town hall meeting Tuesday in New Hampshire that “Sen. Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign.'' He was referring to Obama's continuing call for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq within 16 months of taking office, a plan that was conditionally endorsed last week by Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki.
In an interview with ABC television that was broadcast Sunday, McCain appeared to soften that remark but did not withdraw it.
“Sen. Obama doesn't understand. He doesn't understand what's at stake here (in Iraq). And he chose to take a political path that would have helped him get the nomination of his party. … And if we'd done what Sen. Obama wanted done, it would have been chaos, genocide, increased Iranian influence, perhaps al-Qaida establishing a base again,'' McCain told ABC.
McCain said he was not questioning Obama's patriotism, though his remarks produced a significant backlash.
On Sunday, fellow Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a longtime McCain friend who accompanied Obama to Iraq, urged the Republican candidate to move away from such stridency.
“I think John is treading on some very thin ground here when he impugns motives,'' Hagel, a Vietnam war veteran who has been a frequent critic of the Iraq war, said in a CBS television interview.
In an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC television, Obama held fast to having refused to back the addition of 30,000 American forces last year in Iraq, the so-called “surge'' that has been credited in part with bringing down violence. Obama contended from the outset that the Iraq war was distracting from what he sees as the far greater danger from the Taliban and al-Qaida that are resurgent in Afghanistan and inside Pakistan.
“My job as the next commander in chief is going to be to make a decision what is the right war to fight, and, and how do we fight it? And I think that we should have been focused on Afghanistan from the start. We should have finished that job. We have not, but we now have the opportunity, moving forward, to begin a phased redeployment (from Iraq) and to make sure that we're finishing the job in Afghanistan,'' Obama said.
In an Associated Press interview aboard Obama's plane as he returned from London, the Democratic candidate said he intended to shift his focus quickly toward the economy and other domestic issues in the coming days.
Depending on actions the current administration and Congress take, he told AP a new economic stimulus package may be his first legislative request from lawmakers if he takes office as the 44th president in January. He has called previously for additional tax rebates and other measures to help revive the economy, and intends to convene a meeting on the subject on Monday in Washington.
McCain, meanwhile, told ABC he supports a proposed ballot initiative in his home state that would prohibit preferential policies for minorities from state and local governments. A decade ago, he called a similar effort “divisive.''
Over the years, McCain has consistently voiced his opposition to hiring quotas based on race. He has supported affirmative action in limited cases. For example, he voted to maintain a program that encourages the awarding of 10 percent of spending on highway construction to women and minorities.
Speaking to a conference of minority journalists on Sunday, Obama, who is aiming to become the first black U.S. president, said McCain was embracing divisive tactics.
Affirmative action programs by the federal and state governments are designed to insure American minorities equal educational and economic opportunities.
Both candidates attended to minor health issues. On Monday, McCain, a three-time melanoma survivor, had a spot of skin removed from his right cheek as a precaution during a routine check up. His campaign said the candidate is fine and his doctor says there's no reason to worry. McCain wore a small bandage near his right temple as he campaigned in California.
Obama saw a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical Center on Sunday night to deal with a sore hip that his campaign said was from playing basketball. Obama told reporters he had some X-rays and he thinks he will be better in about a week.
Pictured above are Sen. John McCain, left, and Sen. Barack Obama, right.