John McCain sees close race in Ohio for Mitt Romney

COLUMBUS, Ohio - A fresh-faced Barack Obama buried Republican John McCain in anti-incumbent sentiment four years ago. Now the 2008 presidential nominee says it's the president's turn to feel the heat.

In a telephone interview Tuesday during a campaign swing through Ohio, McCain recalled that "with some legitimacy, Barack Obama hung the Bush record around my neck."

The Arizona senator said turnabout is fair play.

"Now this is the president, incumbent who said if the deficit wasn't cut in half he shouldn't run again. This is the president that said that if we pass the stimulus package that unemployment would be less than 6 percent," he said. "This is the president who we just found out has not shown leadership in the Middle East to the degree where the attack on our U.S. consulate in Libya has turned into a major scandal."

Obama and his administration have struggled to explain the circumstances that led to an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said it was her responsibility, not the White House's, to keep the consulate safe.

McCain said his successor as Republican nominee, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is justified in highlighting the Obama administration's failings for voters. He named the situation in Libya and a still-struggling U.S. economy as prime targets.

Though the national unemployment rate has fallen to 7.8 percent since the last presidential debate, its first dip below 8 percent in 43 months, McCain said jobs still resonate as an issue with voters in the political battleground of Ohio.

"Although the economy of Ohio has been improving, it's still a long way from what I think most of the citizens would think is satisfactory," he said.

Both presidential campaigns are fighting fiercely for Ohio, a closely divided swing state that Obama won by nearly 5 percentage points in 2008.

Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have accelerated their Ohio campaigning in the past two weeks. One or both will have led rallies in seven of the last 10 days by Wednesday, when Ryan is scheduled to appear at Baldwin Wallace University in the Cleveland suburb of Fairview Park.

Obama is headed to another campus, Ohio University in Athens, on Wednesday -- his third time in the state this month. First Lady Michelle Obama has also visited Ohio twice this month, and Vice President Joe Biden is headed back next week.

McCain stopped short of predicting a Romney win -- in Ohio, or nationally -- but noted that polls are tightening.

"I can draw a scenario where Mitt Romney can win without Ohio, but it's a very, very difficult path," he said. "And so I think the eyes of the world will be on Ohio and, from the polling that I see -- and this is obviously a very dynamic situation -- we could be up late."

McCain said he fully expects Obama to "do much, much better" in the second debate than he did facing Romney the first time.

"This is a very articulate president; he has a lot of charisma and Americans like him," he said. "So I would be astonished if he doesn't do a lot better in this debate, but he still has the problem of defending a record that is impossible to defend."

Romney's fate in Ohio could be pivotal for Republican Senate nominee Josh Mandel, the state treasurer trying to unseat Democrat Sherrod Brown. War hero McCain has endorsed Mandel, a two-tour U.S. Marine, and was in the state for a fundraiser with the candidate in the northwest Ohio city of Findlay.

Pinning the "career politician" label on Brown, a veteran congressman, has been one of Mandel's campaign strategies. McCain said it's a hazard all incumbents face.

"Look, all's fair. I'm not complaining about it, but I found myself in a position (in 2008) where I was having to defend President Bush, as well as my own vision for America," he recalled. "And on Sept. 15, when the stock market went down 700 points, we went down dramatically as well."
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Associated Press writer Dan Sewell in Cincinnati contributed to this report.

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