After a handshake and the briefest of embraces in a church full of evangelical Christians, Democrat Barack Obama quickly took off the gloves and was again battering John McCain as little different from President George W. Bush.
The first-term Illinois senator also laid into the campaign team of his four-term Senate colleague from Arizona on Sunday for using "the same old folks that brought you George W. Bush" to paint Obama as unpatriotic and weak.
Obama, who has been put on the defensive by a series of attacks on his character, experience and readiness for the presidency, has been responding to the McCain accusations blow for blow.
McCain has sought to make the 2008 presidential contest a referendum on Obama, while trying to duck his associations with Bush, who has become deeply unpopular with voters disenchanted with 5 1/2 years of war in Iraq and a badly stumbling economy.
Before a crowd of several hundred union members in Reno, Nevada, Obama said the American economy was a disaster and blamed "John McCain's president, George W. Bush."
And Obama lashed out at McCain's recent conversion on lifting a quarter-century ban on offshore oil and natural gas exploration, calling it poll-driven. McCain says drilling for energy supplies in American coastal waters is now necessary as a step in bringing down energy prices and as part of a larger plan to reduce U.S. oil imports. Obama and most energy experts say supplies from offshore drilling will be years in coming to market and would have little, if any, effect on the price of gasoline or home heating oil.
"McCain says 'Here's my plan, I'm going to drill here, drill now,' which is something he only came up with two months ago when he started looking at polling," Obama said.
McCain did not make any campaign appearances Sunday. He was in Florida for a fundraising event which was canceled as Tropical Storm Fay moved toward the state. The Republican candidate was briefed on the storm.
On Monday, McCain was to go to Orlando to address the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, which should provide a warm reception to the former fighter pilot who spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner in North Vietnam. Obama was scheduled to speak on Tuesday, followed by Bush on Wednesday.
Obama defended his opponent on that front Sunday when a voter at the Reno town hall session criticized McCain's Vietnam era record.
"Respectfully I'm going to disagree with you on McCain and his service," Obama said. "I think his service was honorable. He deserves respect."
While trying to link McCain policies to those of the unpopular Bush, Obama also said his opponent had resorted to campaign tactics the current president used in defeating former Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and Sen. John Kerry four years later.
"They say this other guy is unpatriotic, or this guy likes French people. That's what they said about Kerry," who narrowly lost to Bush in 2004. "They try to make it out like Democrats aren't tough enough, aren't macho enough. It's the same strategy."
McCain spokesman Brian Rogers responded, "John McCain has never questioned Sen. Obama's patriotism, but he clearly does question Sen. Obama's experience and judgment, and they do have profound differences of opinion on the best way to reduce our dependence on Mideast oil, bring jobs back to America and keep our nation safe."
Earlier this summer, McCain handed day to day operation of his campaign to Steve Schmidt, a veteran Republican strategist who was a spokesman for Bush during the 2004 campaign. Most of his other top advisers are longtime loyalists who have worked for McCain for years.
Meanwhile, possible vice presidential running mates for both candidates populated American television talk shows Sunday.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican who supports abortion rights and whose name has been floated by McCain as a possible No. 2, said he thought the party would accept a so-called pro-choice vice presidential candidate.
McCain riled some conservatives last week when he suggested his running mate could — like Ridge — support abortion rights.
"What he was saying to the rest of the world is that we need to accept both points of view," Ridge said on Fox television. "He's not judgmental about me or my belief. He just disagrees with me."
He spoke a day after McCain assured evangelical Christians during a forum on faith in California that he had a long record in opposition to abortion and would not change that stand. The abortion issue drew one of the starkest lines under policy differences raised Saturday night when both McCain and Obama were questioned separately by pastor Rick Warren in his Saddleback Church, a California megacongregation that claims 23,000 members.
Naming a running mate is at the top of Obama's agenda as well, with the Democratic National convention a week away.
The candidate and his closest advisers are refusing to talk about the process, leaving outsiders to try to read tea leaves in his schedule.
At the session with Warren in California, Obama brought up a potential running mate — former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn — when asked to name three people he would rely on for counsel as president. Obama listed Nunn after his wife and grandmother.