READING, Pa. (AP) -- Democrat Barack Obama, who often argues that John McCain is the same as President Bush, said Sunday that the Republican presidential candidate would be an improvement over Bush's eight-year reign.
"You have a real choice in this election. Either Democrat would be better than John McCain. And all three of us would be better than George Bush," Obama said.
"But what you have to ask yourself is, who has the chance to actually, really change things in a fundamental way?" Obama asked as he wrapped up a town-hall style event at Reading High School in central Pennsylvania.
The Illinois senator was trying to argue that he is the stronger choice over Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton in Tuesday's primary in Pennsylvania. But Obama ended up mixing in praise for McCain at the same time - and giving Clinton an opening to criticize.
"We need a nominee who will take on John McCain, not cheer on John McCain," the New York senator said in Johnstown. She said the Arizona senator would follow "the same failed policies that have been so wrong for our country the last seven years."
Before the positive comment about McCain, Obama had argued anew - as he does at virtually every campaign stop - that the Republican offers a vision identical to that of the Bush administration on everything from Iraq to the economy. "We cannot afford a third George Bush term and that's what John McCain is offering - a third Bush term," Obama said.
But his a backhanded compliment threatened to undercut his own efforts - and those of the entire Democratic Party - to portray the GOP presidential nominee-in-waiting as nothing more than an extension of Bush's unpopular tenure. At the very least, the remark provided fodder that Republicans can use in the general election to try to prop up McCain.
It also knocked Obama off message at a critical time as he seeks to further narrow Clinton's dwindling advantage in Pennsylvania polls in the final days before the state's primary.
Obama began his day attending church in Lebanon before chatting up diners at a family style restaurant in Robesonia. He then held the question-and-answer event in Reading and walked down Main Street in Bethlehem. At the final event of the night, Obama appeared on stage at a rally in Scranton alongside two high-profile backers, Caroline Kennedy and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey.
The candidate didn't refer to his earlier comment about McCain or try to explain it. Instead, the fired-up candidate offered a full-throated critique of his GOP rival - and repeatedly insisted that McCain and Bush were joined at the hip.
"We are going to bring an end to the George Bush era," Obama declared. "His name won't be on the ballot" but "one name that will be on the ballot is John McCain!"
The audience booed, and Obama said: "The problem is that he's running for George Bush's third term."
Such comments are common fare these days for Democrats. They are trying to make the general election a referendum on Bush, whose job approval ratings have been dragged down by the Iraq war and a troubled economy.
Mindful of Bush's unpopularity, McCain is casting himself as an independent thinker with his own vision for the country and a record of fighting the status quo in nearly three decades in Washington.
Said Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman: "The remark underscores that John McCain has the strength to change America and move this nation forward. Barack Obama is a new face who represents old ideas."
Countered Obama spokesman Bill Burton: "It's hard to imagine a president doing a worse job than President Bush but one thing is clear, John McCain wants to do his best to emulate Bush's failed economic and foreign policies and even his divisive political tactics."