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Obama, McCain squabble over town hall faceoffs

COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Barack Obama and John McCain, rivals for the White House, squabbled on Friday over terms for a series of face-to-face town hall meetings and each side blamed the other for an inability to reach an accord.

Democrat Obama and Republican McCain, opponents in the November election, also bickered over ways to salvage Social Security, the U.S. government retirement system for seniors that is at risk of going broke in the decades ahead.

The presidential libraries of Democrat Lyndon Johnson and Republican Ronald Reagan offered to host the two candidates at separate town hall meetings.

McCain, 71, quickly accepted and accused Obama, 46, of rejecting his offer from two weeks ago to hold 10 face-to-face encounters, one a week, throughout the summer.

McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said in an e-mail the Obama side had instead offered to take part in only one town hall before the Democratic nominating convention in Denver in late August.

McCain called on Obama to reconsider and join him in a town hall meeting as early as next week. “His people have responded with a ... very disappointing response,” McCain told reporters in Pemberton, New Jersey.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said his candidate had offered to meet McCain five times before Election Day -- in the three presidential campaign debates that normally take place plus a joint town hall on the economy in July and an in-depth debate on foreign policy in August.

“That package of five engagements would have been the most of any presidential campaign in the modern era -- offering a broad range of formats -- and representing a historic commitment to openness and transparency,” Plouffe said.

McCain prefers a town hall format over speeches, during which he has been known to mangle his lines. At town halls the public asks questions rather than journalists. Earlier, McCain helped his once-foundering campaign by staging 100 of them.

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Obama has a lead in the polls and may not want to get in the boxing ring over and over again with McCain to reduce the chances of making a mistake that would make him look inexperienced.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal opinion poll this week showed Obama had the support of 47 percent of registered voters compared with 41 percent for McCain.

The candidates also battled over how to extend the solvency of the Social Security retirement system for seniors that risks running out of money in the decades ahead.

Obama, visiting the battleground state of Ohio, said he would pump more money into the system by raising the earnings cap on U.S. payroll taxes.

Right now, anyone who makes more than $102,000 a year pays payroll taxes on that amount but not on earnings above that amount.

Obama said this means millionaires and billionaires like Warren Buffett are only paying payroll taxes on their first $102,000. He said he would exempt anyone making less than $250,000 from the increased tax.

“That’s why I think the best way forward is to adjust the cap on the payroll tax so that people like me pay a little bit more and people in need are protected,” Obama told seniors at a retirement living facility in Columbus.

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Obama said he would raise payroll taxes on Americans making more than $250,000, a tax rise on the wealthiest 3 percent.

The McCain camp says Obama’s plan would end up raising taxes on 10 million seniors who depend on dividend income to pay for their retirement.

“Barack Obama likes to think that his tax increases will only hit a few Americans, but in truth, his economic plan will be a disaster for everyone, especially seniors,” said McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds.

Obama was joined on the campaign trail by his wife, Michelle, who gave an introduction of her husband so glowing that Obama himself was bemused.

“I enjoy listening to her praise me like that because when I get home she’ll remind me that I didn’t make the bed,” he said with a chuckle.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Howard Goller and Eric Beech)

To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at