After holding a successful, enthusiastic campaign rally at Cincinnati’s Memorial Hall Tuesday, the last thing John McCain wanted to do was to walk out in front of the media and apologize for what the warm-up act said.
But that is what an obviously irritated McCain did during the noon hour Tuesday, when he came out and denounced remarks made by WLW talk show host Bill Cunningham, who delivered a 10-minute speech in which he insulted Barack Obama, Hillary and Bill Clinton, and the media in general.
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Cunningham’s warm-up act delighted the 500 or so cheering Cincinnati Republicans gathered in the 100-year-old theater, but it infuriated McCain.
"I take responsibility and I repudiate what he said," Sen. McCain told reporters after the rally at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine. “A person came out here before I arrived and made some disparaging remarks about senators Obama and Clinton and I regret that.”
Photos: McCain campaigns in Cincinnati
McCain said he did not actually hear Cunningham’s warm-up speech – he was heading upstairs to the stage – but was told of it by aides.
Cunningham was critical of the national news media, saying that sooner or later, the media would begin covering Obama’s "sweetheart deals in Chicago and the illegal loans he got in Chicago.’’
He also called Obama a "hack Chicago-style Daley politician’’ and twice used Obama’s middle name Hussein, referring to him as "Barack Hussein Obama.’’
It might have been shocking to McCain, who has made a point of saying he will run a civil campaign against whichever Democrat wins that party’s nomination. But to the Republicans in attendance – many of them long-time party leaders and elected officials – it was old hat.
Cunningham has been asked by the Hamilton County Republican Party to warm up crowds at countless political fundraisers and rallies.
Everything that McCain had said earlier in his 20-minute speech – about pursuing Osama Bin Laden to “the gates of hell” to his plans to cut corporate tax rates and keep the Bush personal tax cuts in place – was subsumed in the flap over Cunningham’s remarks and McCain’s angry reaction to them.
And it overshadowed, too, McCain’s visit Tuesday afternoon to a West Chester company that makes armored Humvees for the military.
As soon as the Memorial Hall rally was over and the crowd began filing out of the hall, McCain walked over to the section where the local press and the news media contingent that travels with him were working in the back of the hall.
"I will not tolerate anything in this campaign that denigrates either Sen. Obama or Sen. (Hillary) Clinton,’’ McCain said.
Cunningham’s blistering comments were carried by national news media, including CNN. Cunningham said later that he stood by his comments. In his speech at Memorial Hall, he threw his support behind McCain, but later, after McCain repudiated his comment, he told his radio audience on WLW that he had “had it with McCain. I’m going to throw my support to Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
Cunningham, a conservative Republican who also hosts a Sunday night syndicated radio show, said he was asked Monday “by a McCain operative” to introduce the Republican front-runner at Memorial Hall.
He spoke to the crowd and left, without meeting or speaking to the candidate, because he had to do his WLW-AM talk show at 12:30 p.m. McCain also said he had never met Cunningham.
At one point, Cunningham compared Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Madeleine Albright, whom he said "looks like death warmed over."
He also commented on the difference between former Ohio Rep. Rob Portman, whose wife is named Jane, and Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay member of Congress.
"Jane’s the main difference, but that’s a different story," Cunningham said. As Cunningham finished, Portman, who is mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, took the microphone to introduce McCain.
"Willie, you’re out of control again. So, what else is new? But we love him," Portman said. "But I’ve got to tell you, Bill Cunningham lending his voice to this campaign is extremely important.”
Speaking to reporters later alongside McCain, Portman said he was backstage and did not hear everything Cunningham said.
“Bill Cunningham is a radio host who is often controversial,” Portman said. "That’s, I guess, how he makes his living."
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, who spoke at the rally, said Cunningham’s comments were not surprising. “Bill does this kind of thing a lot at Republican events, and we’re used to hearing it.’’
In his speech at the rally, McCain – who has all but wrapped up the GOP nomination – said his Democratic opponents are too quick to give up in Iraq.
McCain predicted that at the Tuesday night debate in Cleveland, Clinton and Obama will “fall over themselves on when they can set a date for withdrawal in Iraq.’’ "I can promise you,’’ McCain said, "I will never, ever surrender to al Qaeda."
Later, at BAE Systems in West Chester, McCain held a meeting that was closed to the public but billed as a “town hall” meeting. McCain inspected armored vehicles and toured production lines at the company, which employs 1,500 people locally and is currently undergoing an expansion.
McCain shook workers’ hands and fielded their questions about the war in Iraq, health care for veterans, education, taxes and the economy.
“I came here to mainly say thank you,” McCain told the workers. “What you are doing I believe is vital to help those brave Americans who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. …You are actively engaged I believe as an integral part in the struggle against radical Islamic extremism.”
Staff writers John Kiesewetter, Sheila McLaughlin and The Associated Press contributed.
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