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McCain, Obama Compete for Laughs at Traditional Political 'Roast'


U.S. presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama took a lighthearted break from campaigning Thursday at a charity dinner in New York City. The Republican and Democratic party candidates poked fun at each other and at themselves before an audience including many of the nation's leading political figures. VOA's Walter Wisniewski has this report.

Senators McCain and Obama were on stage together for a second night in a row, following their third and final debate of the election campaign on Wednesday. But at the annual Al Smith memorial dinner, a political tradition in New York, the candidates were competing to see who could trigger the biggest laughs.

McCain struck first.

"A major announcement. Events are moving fast in my campaign, and yes, it's true that this morning I've dismissed my entire team of senior advisers," he joked. "All of their positions will now be held by a man named 'Joe the Plumber.'"

"Joe the Plumber" is a businessman from Ohio who challenged Obama at one of his campaign appearances, and who was invoked repeatedly by both senators in their debate this week.

Obama, in turn, announced that his vice presidential running mate, Senator Joseph Biden, now prefers to be known simply as "Joe the Senator."

The Al Smith dinner honors a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for president 80 years ago and raises money for Catholic charities. The traditional gathering attracts politicians from all parties, and only humorous speeches are allowed.

In an earlier debate this month McCain referred to Obama, standing near him onstage, not by name but as "that one" - a remark that some criticized as demeaning or even insulting. The Arizona senator joked on Thursday that he came up with the phrase after hearing that some of Obama's most ardent supporters referred to him reverently as "the one."

"Being a friend and colleague of Barack, I just called him 'that one.' [laughter] My friends, he doesn't mind at all," McCain said. "In fact, he even has a pet name for me: George Bush."

McCain also won laughs by slyly suggesting that former President Bill Clinton's support for Obama has been less than wholehearted, because the Illinois senator won his party's nomination only after crushing the presidential hopes of Mr. Clinton's wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Speaking after McCain, Obama surveyed the audience and said: "There is no other crowd in America that I'd rather be palling around with right now."

A wry reference to allegations by McCain's running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, that Obama had been "palling around with" people once considered American terrorists.

"It is a tribute to American democracy that with two weeks left in a hardfought election, the two of us could come together and sit down together at the same dinner table ... without preconditions," Obama kept his humor deadpan. "Now recently one of John's advisers told the Daily News [newspaper] that if we keep talking about the economy, McCain's going to lose. So tonight I'd like to talk about the economy."

The candidates laughed heartily at each other's jokes, but they also spoke warmly about their mutual respect and admiration.

McCain said Obama "is an impressive fellow in many ways."

"Political opponents can have a little trouble in seeing the best in each other, but I've had a few glimpses of this man at his best, and I admire his great skill, energy and determination," McCain said.

McCain said Senator Obama's campaign has made history.

"There was a time when a mere invitation of an African-American citizen to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage and an insult in many quarters," he noted. "Today is a world away from the crude and prideful bigotry of that time, and good riddance. I can't wish my opponent luck, but I do wish him well."

Obama reflected on the tough battles that have marked this presidential campaign.

"But I've said before and I think it bears repeating, that there are very few of us who have served this country with the same dedication and honor and distinction as Senator McCain," Obama said. "No matter what divisions or differences or arguments we're having right now, we ultimately belong to something bigger and more lasting than a political party. We belong to a community. We share a country. We are all children of God."