By Jeff Mason
MARTINSVILLE, Virginia (Reuters) – Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain dodged questions about their looming vice presidential picks on Wednesday as they renewed their battle over who has the best judgment on national security and the economy.
Obama ignored questions from reporters about his choice on a day he toured the battleground state of Virginia, home to one of the finalists in his running mate hunt, Gov. Tim Kaine.
“How long did it take you to think up that question?” Obama said during a stop at a farm market in North Carolina when a reporter asked if he was still shopping for a running mate.
McCain was asked by a voter at a town hall meeting in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and on a conservative talk radio program whether he would pick a running mate who favors abortion rights.
The Arizona senator, an abortion rights opponent, sparked conservative alarm last week when he said he would not rule out abortion rights supporter Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor, as his No. 2.
“I will nominate a person to be vice president, my running mate, who shares my principles, my values and my priorities and that’s what I can tell you,” McCain said in New Mexico.
He also told talk show host Laura Ingraham he was having a hard time making a choice. McCain has scheduled a large rally in Ohio on August 29, his 72nd birthday and the day after the Democratic convention ends, amid reports he will unveil his choice that day.
“There’s already been things out there in the media, ‘he’s already made up his mind, he’s going to announce on such and such a day,”’ McCain said.
“I have not made the decision and we’re in the process, and if I say anything more than that I guarantee you there’s going to be another one of these firestorms. Obviously we’re going to be announcing soon because we have no choice, but I’ve got to tell you it’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.”
History has shown the choice of a running mate is unlikely to have a major impact on the November 4 election between Obama and McCain, but along with the upcoming conventions the choices give both candidates a chance for the political spotlight.
Obama–Running Mate by Saturday?
Time is running out for both to make their pick. The Democratic convention that formally nominates Obama and his running mate opens on Monday, and the Republican convention to nominate McCain and his choice opens a week later.
Obama is expected to name his running mate in the next few days and appear with the prospective No. 2 on Saturday as he launches his run to the convention in Denver.
Speculation about Obama’s choice has centered on three prime contenders — Kaine, who will join him on the campaign trail on Thursday, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden.
In Virginia, Obama campaigned with the Democratic keynote speaker, former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who touted Kaine.
“I think he knows how to reach across party lines the same way Barack Obama does,” Warner said.
McCain’s short list includes Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former budget director Rob Portman and Ridge.
A new Reuters/Zogby poll gave McCain a 5-point national lead over Obama, wiping out the Illinois senator’s 7-point advantage in July and giving McCain his first national lead in the Reuters/Zogby poll and one of his few leads in any poll.
McCain has been gaining on Obama in national polls over the last few weeks after repeatedly criticizing the Democrat’s experience, opposition to most new offshore oil drilling and credentials as a commander in chief.
McCain renewed his attacks on Obama for supporting a 16-month timetable to withdraw combat troops from Iraq, and criticized Obama’s suggestion that he had questioned Obama’s patriotism.
“Yesterday Senator Obama got a little testy on this issue. He said I’m questioning his patriotism,” McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam and a staunch advocate of the Iraq war, said in New Mexico. “Let me be very clear. I am not questioning his patriotism. I am questioning his judgment.”
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, selected to be the keynote speaker at the Republican convention, told reporters Obama was “one of the least experienced candidates for president in the last 100 years.”
Obama said in Virginia he had to prove Democrats could fix the country’s economic problems. He said McCain would be a rerun of President George W. Bush’s economic approach.
“He wants to continue the same economic policies that George Bush has been doing for the last eight years,” Obama said.
“So my job in this election is to say: I honor his service but I don’t honor his policies and I don’t honor his politics,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst; Writing by John Whitesides, Editing by David Wiessler)