(CBS/AP) Sen. Barack Obama said Saturday that the Republican presidential nominee in waiting, Sen. John McCain, has lobbyists as top aides and "many of them have been running their business on the campaign bus while they've been helping him."
The Democratic presidential hopeful also said McCain's health care plans reflect "the agenda of the drug and insurance lobbyists, who back his campaign and use money and influence to block real health care reform."
Jill Hazelbaker, a spokeswoman for McCain, said the Arizona senator "has been an agent for change for his entire career - he is the greatest change agent in our party - and we plan to highlight that record in this election."
Obama has criticized McCain increasingly in recent weeks, while running off 11 straight primary and caucus victories over his Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
This most recent attack follows a week in which McCain has had to defend himself against an accusation published in the New York Times that he had maintained an inappropriate relationship with communications lobbyist Vicky Iseman and may have favored her clients.
McCain's staff insisted that the senator never "discussed" with Iseman - or her client, broadcaster Lowell "Bud" Paxson - Paxson's effort to get the FCC to approve his bid to buy a Pittsburgh TV station. But Paxson contradicted that in today's Washington Post, saying he did meet with McCain to ask for help, and Newsweek magazine reports McCain himself confirmed a meeting during a 2002 deposition.
Today, McCain's lawyer said now that his memory's been jogged, the senator doesn't dispute making the under-oath comments, reports CBS News correspondent Joie Chen.
From the start, McCain admitted writing to urge a timely decision on the Paxson matter, but did not direct the FCC to approve the purchase.
"That is a perfectly appropriate thing for members of congress to do to keep the bureaucracy moving," McCain's attorney Bob Bennet told CBS News, "so it's really, to be honest with you, much ado about nothing."
Polls taken during the primary season show that independent voters are drawn in large numbers to both Obama and McCain, suggesting the two men would compete intensively for their support if they wind up opposing each other in the general election this fall.
Obama made his remarks as he campaigned for votes in the March 4 Democratic primary in Ohio, with 141 national convention delegates at stake.
He made health care a focus of his campaign day, visiting a hospital diabetes unit. At one point in a discussion with doctors and nurses, the talk turned to prevention of the illness in youngsters.
"If we just cut out soda pop," it would make a difference, he said.
Asked at a later news conference about the issue, he said he hopes schools will "re-examine how easily they make soda available."
Citing an increase in childhood obesity and diabetes, he said if children "are consuming vast amounts of soft drinks chock full of corn syrup, then we should, you know, consider whether we want to maybe have at least some zones like schools where they have to drink water once in a while."
Obama also camapaigned in Akron and Cleveland Saturday. He singled McCain out for criticism twice during the day, at one point saying that the Republican's health care proposals are worse than anything proposed in the race between himself and Clinton.
He characterized them as "more of the same Bush health care policies that haven't worked in the past and won't work today."
"It's a tax break that doesn't guarantee coverage and doesn't make sure that health care is affordable for the working families who need it most," he said.
Obama broadened his criticism to McCain's ties to lobbyists in general, saying, "He takes their money and has put them in charge of his campaign."
The Illinois senator returned to the subject later, when he said it was indisputable that McCain's "got his top advisers in this campaign are lobbyists, that many of them have been running their business on the campaign bus while they've been helping him."
An aide said Obama was referring to Charlie Black, and pointed to a recent published report that said the McCain strategist, who is a registered lobbyist, does a lot of work by phone from McCain's campaign bus.
In rebuttal, Hazelbaker accused Obama of trying to distract attention from his record and resume. She said he has "no national security experience and plans billions of dollars in tax hikes."