The Democratic hopeful Barack Obama took his campaign to the Republican bastion of North Carolina yesterday, while his opponent, John McCain, launched the first attack ad of the presidential election.
Despite promises to stay on the higher ground, Mr McCain's commercial uses imagery to suggest that Mr Obama is a friend of America's enemies. It shows an apparently badly shaven Mr Obama looking across at the bearded face of the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It is a far cry from the candidate's pledge in April for a campaign that is more akin to a discussion among friends than a bitter clash of ideological rivals.
"We have nothing to fear from each other," he said as he reached out to disaffected Democrats. "We are arguing over the means to better secure our freedom, promote the general welfare and defend our ideals." As soon as Mr McCain clinched the Republican nomination his office sent out a memo calling for "a respectful campaign focused on the issues and values that are important to the American people".
That honeymoon is now a distant memory and signalling that the gloves are about to come off for the final phase of the election, Mr Obama has himself hired an opposition research expert to dig dirt on Mr McCain.
Mr McCain held a series of closed-door fundraising events yesterday even as his campaign splashed more than $3m (£1.5m) on television ads seeking to define his opponent as weak on national security.
Mr Obama's trip to North Carolina, which has not voted Democrat in 30 years, is a bold attempt to redraw the red-blue map of America, which has hardly changed over the past four elections. The Democratic nominee is focusing on the hard times being faced by ordinary Americans as they struggle with high petrol and food prices in the midst of an economic downturn.
He said yesterday that he would impose a windfall profits tax on American oil companies if elected. He also accused Mr McCain of threatening the country with even greater debt by promising more tax cuts for the wealthy. Mr Obama is attempting to focus the general election campaign on the economy while Mr McCain continues to talk about the need for victory in the war in Iraq. "You don't have to read the stock tickers or scan the headlines in the financial section to understand the seriousness of the situation we're in right now," Mr Obama said.
The unemployment rate jumped to 5.5 per cent last month, from 5 per cent in April. So far this year, 324,000 people have lost their jobs, according to official figures. He is calling for $30bn to be spent to bail out those made homeless by the housing crisis and to offer tax cuts for middle-class Americans.
In North Carolina, his campaign is also registering tens of thousands of blacks who have never voted. Mr Obama was then headed for Missouri, another red state he hopes to turn blue. It last voted Democrat in 1966. Even he fails to win these states, Mr Obama is trying to stretch his opponent's thin resources by forcing him to campaign in what are considered to be heartland Republican states.
Mr McCain, who admits that economics is not his strong suit, is promising to make permanent the tax cuts made by George Bush that have benefited America's wealthiest the most.Reuse content