Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama campaigned in South Florida Friday for the first time in three months amid what he called "the most serious financial crisis in generations," telling a crowd dominated by women that his Republican rival failed to understand their struggles.
Speaking to a nearly packed house of 8,000 people at the University of Miami's BankUnited Center, Obama poked fun at McCain for speaking positively about the "fundamentals" of the economy and proposing a new financial regulatory agency for financial institutions.
"I think it's clear Sen. McCain is a little panicked right now," Obama said to the delight of the raucous crowd.
The reaction echoed the sentiment among many Democrats that the nation's economic woes could shake up the race and repel voters from McCain, who is trying to distance himself from the unpopular Bush administration.
"This isn't a time for fear or panic," Obama said. ``It's a time for resolve, and it's a time for leadership."
Polls in Florida show a tight race. Obama is slated to headline rallies Tuesday in Daytona Beach and Jacksonville.
Obama accused the GOP of wanting to "talk about Paris and Britney and lipstick and pigs," but the splashy ads of recent weeks have disappeared as Wall Street has reeled from shock.
Touching on the so-called "third rail" of Florida politics, Obama accused McCain of seeking to risk Social Security money in the stock market. McCain supported Bush's proposal to shore up the troubled fund by investing some money in private accounts.
"When I am president we are not going to gamble with Social Security" Obama said, echoing a new ad running in retiree-rich Palm Beach County.
Much of Obama's speech focused on women, who he said bear the brunt of economically hard times. He touted his sponsorship of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, aimed at making it easier for women to sue employers for equal pay by giving them more time to file complaints.
McCain opposed the measure, named for an Alabama factory worker who took her claim of sex discrimination to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I won't give up until women in this country are paid what they have earned and not a penny less," Obama said.
Obama's speech was preceded by a long lineup of female elected officials, who made the pitch that the Illinois senator is on the right side of women's issues. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri painted a picture of a struggling working mother, clipping coupons to save money on diapers and working two minimum-wage jobs.
"Those are real women that need Barack Obama in this election," said McCaskill, who sat on a stool next to Obama during his 40-minute speech, along with U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston.
In a impassioned defense of abortion rights, Broward County Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin told the crowd: ``I don't want government in my body! I don't want government in my bedroom!"
McCain opposes abortion in most cases and his running mate, Sarah Palin, says it should be outlawed for victims of rape and incest.
Campaigning in Wisconsin on Friday morning, McCain called for the formation of a new regulatory agency to troubleshoot troubled financial institutions before they go bust. McCain frequently resisted increased government intervention in the past but has stepped up his attacks against greed and corruption on Wall Street.
McCain also took aim at Obama for tapping a former CEO from collapsing mortgage giant Fannie Mae to compile his vice presidential shortlist. The executive resigned at the outset of the search.
Obama has a new national cable ad of his own that portrays McCain surrounded by Wall Street fat cats.
About a dozen protesters briefly interrupted Obama's speech, waving white placards that said, "Blacks against Obama." When security escorted out the protesters, Obama quipped, ``Bye, guys -- see you."
After days of parsing financial jargon amid the deepening financial crisis, Obama struck a more personal note at the rally. He described his mother struggling to put herself through graduate school, while raising him and his sister, largely on her own.
"It is good to see so many women in the house," Obama said to rousing cheers.
First in line at the BankUnited Center Friday morning were a handful of students who had been there since 2 a.m., fueled by Red Bull and political discourse.
Brandon Mitchell, 18, said he skipped three classes to attend the rally. His friend, Tom Vasiliu, 18, skipped one -- with his professor's blessing.
"He said I'd be doing a disservice to every college student by not going to this," said Vasiliu, a New York native registered in Florida who said he would vote for Obama.
Despite the numerous "Got Hope?" and "Friends don't let real friends vote Republican" T-shirts, not everyone in line had already decided on Obama.
"I want to hear what he has to say," said Deborah Graw, a 22-year-old architecture graduate student from Parkland, who originally supported Clinton. ``Right now, I'm leaning McCain."
Tom Johnson, 24, another architecture student, admitted he skipped the 2004 election.
"I need a little push," he said. ``Maybe that's why I'm here today."
Cheryl Dozier, who recently signed up as an Obama volunteer, said she was determined to help Obama win Florida, despite his relatively few visits.
"He has to spend time at both ends," she said. ``He's carrying us, but he's not carrying North Florida yet."
Obama will attend back-to-back fundraisers Friday night at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables and the Miami home of mega-donor Chris Korge, which are expected to generate a record-setting haul for a Democratic candidate in Florida.
The last time Obama was in Miami, addressing the U.S. Conference of Mayors in June, he left without an endorsement from Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. Obama will not be leaving empty-handed this time, as the registered independent who supported Hillary Clinton is expected to offer his support.
Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark and Herald writers Carolina Navarro and Jose Paglieri contributed to this report.