McCain faces protesters, heated questions at Denver town hall

Saying the American economy is slowing, Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Monday reiterated his support for a national gas tax holiday and introduced a plan to double the child tax deduction from $3,500 to $7,000 a year.

Holding a town hall meeting in Denver, the Arizona senator spoke for 15 minutes before taking questions, some less than friendly, from a gathered crowd of 250.

Not missing an opportunity to attack his likely Democrat opponent Barack Obama, McCain claimed a vote for Obama will amount to a substantial tax hike for Americans.

“Senator Obama will raise your taxes. I won’t,” McCain said at the gathering at the Denver Center for Performing Arts. “I will cut them where I can. Jobs are the most important thing our economy creates. When you raise taxes in a bad economy you eliminate jobs (and) I’m not going to let that happen.”

Despite acknowledging that some experts don’t believe it will benefit the economy, McCain once again called for a gas tax holiday, saying he believes the American people are behind him.

Both McCain and Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton endorsed a gas tax holiday during the primary season, while Obama called it a campaign ploy that won’t help Americans in the long term with rising energy costs.

“Some economists don’t think much of my gas tax holiday,” McCain said. “But the American people like it, and so do small business owners.”

McCain’s stop in Denver comes on the heels of a visit last week by Obama to Colorado Springs, where he delivered a speech on the importance of national service to an invite-only crowd of about 200. Colorado has emerged as a battleground for the presidential election, and a recent poll placed Obama five points ahead of McCain.

The Arizona senator, who was quoted last year saying the economy isn’t his strongest policy area, said Americans are in need of more open markets to receive American products.

He also spoke to the challenges of rising fuel prices facing Americans and a slowing worldwide economy.

McCain, who recently called for expanded domestic drilling, expressed his belief that America needs to rid its dependence on foreign crude and develop other forms of energy, including increasing “clean coal” production and developing 45 new nuclear power plants nationwide.

“The development of clean coal technology will create jobs in some of America’s most economically disadvantaged areas. Our coal reserves are larger than Saudi Arabia’s supply of oil,” McCain said, adding that coal projects can employ 30,000 Americans.

The Denver campaign stop was not void of protests, including one organized by the liberal group ProgressNow that was broken up by DCPA staff and Denver Police at the request of McCain’s Secret Service detail outside the venue.

Members of ProgressNow, one of whom was wearing a pea costume to illustrate the “two peas in a pod” message referencing McCain’s ideological similarities to President Bush, were holding signs and standing outside the event, but on the grounds of the DCPA in downtown Denver.

"McCain’s Secret Service has told us we can’t exhibit our First Amendment rights of free speech," said Michael Huttner, executive director of ProgressNow.

Tom Kise, the regional communications director for McCain, said the campaign asked that protesters not enter the event with costume and signs but said there was never a directive to stop protests outside of the venue.

"John McCain has intentionally reached out and invited independent and undecided voters to attend these town hall meetings so he can hear from everybody, not just a hand-selected crowd," Kise said. "You saw that at (Monday’s) event where more than half of the questions that he took were from people who disagreed with him."

During the question-and-answer session that followed McCain’s speech, Jim Hudson, a Vietnam veteran and a registered Democrat, asked McCain why he hasn’t supported veterans as reflected by his voting record including a recent vote against Sen. Jim Web’s, R-Virginia, GI Bill. McCain responded, noting his interpretation of his voting record is different than that of Hudson.

“I will continue to be proud of my support for the veterans of this country,” McCain said, adding that he has always received the support of veterans groups in “every election I have ever run in throughout (my career).”

Another audience member asked McCain to explain why he missed the most recent vote on the Medicare extension in the Senate.

“The Medicare system is broken… It’s the elephant in the room on the economic future of America,” McCain said. “We have got to fix a broken system that is health care. I want every family in America to have $5,000 tax credit so they can go across state lines and get the affordable medical care of their choice.

Not every question for McCain was serious in nature including comments from Georgette Haddad who cried foul over high taxes in America.

“Don’t you ever, once you become a president, say ‘Well I was forced to raise the taxes! You tax us when we are born, you tax us when we are dead, you tax us when we sleep… you tax us every which way. Get off of my back!’” Haddad screamed into the microphone.

McCain, in one of the more lighthearted moments of the forum, said “If you’re not busy, I would like to take you on the road with me.”

The presidential hopeful was not able to get out of Denver without taking one question about the possibility of naming former Gov. Mitt Romney, who overwhelmingly won the Colorado caucuses in February, as his running mate — a question McCain deflected.

“We’re in a process (and) Gov. Romney has earned a great place in the Republican Party and he gained (a lot) of votes during the primary… and we’re very grateful he (has) been so supportive,” McCain said.