The pitched battle for the White House briefly made way for good humour and a good cause yesterday as Barack Obama and John McCain traded jibes at a black-tie charity dinner in New York. Twenty-four hours after their last debate before the Nov 4 election, the presidential hopefuls were star turns at the celebrity-studded event to raise money for poor children in honour of the late New York governor Al Smith.
Mr McCain went first, announcing he had just replaced all his campaign staff with Joe the Plumber, the Ohio entrepreneur who became a household name overnight after Mr McCain invoked him in Wednesday's debate. "Joe the Plumber recently signed a very lucrative contract with a wealthy couple to handle all the work on all seven of their houses," he added, alluding to the McCain clan's many homes around the United States that became an election issue earlier in the year.
Mr McCain moved on to find humour in other campaign issues, including dubious voter registration cards filled out by an organisation called Acorn that has been signing up voters from disadvantaged areas. "In Florida, they even turned up an Acorn registration form that bore the name of one Mickey Mouse. We're checking the paw prints (but) I'm pretty sure the big rat's a Republican," he said. He also made light of a moment in the second presidential debate when he referred to Mr Obama as "that one" and joked that Hillary Clinton, Mr Obama's rival for the Democrat nomination who was present at the dinner, was supporting him in his faltering bid for the White House.
"There are signs of hope, even in the most unexpected places. Even in this room full of proud Manhattan Democrats. I can't shake that feeling that some people here are pulling for me. I'm delighted to see you here tonight, Hillary!" he said to roars of laughter. Mr McCain, 72, wrapped up his 15 minutes of wisecracking with a moving tip of the hat to Mr Obama, 47, for being the first black politician with a real stab at the White House.
"Senator Obama talks about making history, and he's made quite a bit of it already," said the Arizona senator. "There was a time when the mere invitation of an African-American citizen to dine at the White House was taken as an outrage and an insult in many quarters. "Today, it's 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."
Then it was Mr Obama's turn at the podium after Mr McCain had sought to raise the pressure on him, telling the assembled dignitaries they were about to hear the funniest speech of their lives. "There is no other crowd in America that I'd rather be palling around with right now," began the Illinois senator, who Mr McCain's running mate Sarah Palin has derided for "palling around" with 1960s radical William Ayers.
He made jokes about the housing crisis, saying it had hit Mr McCain and his multiple homes heavier than most, and took a good-hearted swipe at his opponent's age. Addressing the great-grandson of Al Smith, a four-term Democratic governor of New York state in the 1920s, he said: "I obviously never knew your great-grandfather, but from everything that Senator McCain has told me..." Turning to his opponent's ad campaign that questions "Who is Barack Obama?" he said: "We're a couple weeks from an important election. Americans have a big choice to make, and if anybody feels like they don't know me by now, let me try to give you some answers.
"Contrary to the rumours, I was not born in a manger," he said, also winning laughs for returning to the "that one" comment from McCain and delivering a one-liner about his middle name, Hussein. "Many of you know that I got my name, Barack, from my father. What you may not know is that Barack is actually Swahili for 'that one'," he said, referring to his Kenyan father. "And I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn't think I'd ever run for president," Mr Obama said.
"But to name my greatest strength I guess it would be my humility. Greatest weakness, it's possible that I'm a little too awesome." *AFP