"In no way do I think that John McCain's campaign was being racist," Obama said in his first meeting with reporters since predicting that McCain and other Republicans would try to scare voters because Obama looks unlike "all those other presidents on the dollar bills" -- most of them older white men.
"I think they're cynical," he said. "And I think they want to distract people from talking about the real issues."
Obama spent a second day in Florida to speak to the National Urban League, the predominantly black group McCain had addressed a day earlier. The Illinois senator offered a fiery defense of his push to bolster the nation's schools and dismissed what he called McCain's "slim record on education."
Obama also used Florida -- a state both sides see as central to victory in November -- as the setting for a shift in policy on offshore oil drilling. While still opposed to expanding oil exploration and development on American coastlines, he said he could reach compromise on the issue if drilling initiatives were part of a broad program aimed at energy independence.
"What I'm interested in, ultimately, is going to be governing," he told reporters at a morning news conference. "What that means is we're going to have to try to get things done."
Asked about the McCain campaign's claim that Obama had "played the race card" -- one McCain spokesman had suggested that McCain was being painted as a racist -- Obama called the criticism an attempt to alter the campaign's focus.
He added of the Republicans' approach: "They're very good at negative campaigning. They're not so good at governing."
A McCain campaign spokesman, Tucker Bounds, contended that Obama was backing off.
"We're glad the Obama campaign retracted Barack Obama's accusation because it was absolutely false, and we're moving on," Bounds said in a statement. "The only 'cynical' candidate in this election is Barack Obama for his continued opposition to John McCain's comprehensive energy plan that includes additional oil drilling, gas tax relief and affordable nuclear energy."
Obama pointed the finger back at McCain.
"None of you thought I was making a racially incendiary remark, or playing the race card," he told reporters. "It wasn't until John McCain's team started pushing it that it ended up being on the front page of The New York Times two days in a row."
Since returning from an overseas trip, Obama has sought to refocus the campaign on bedrock economic issues, and he conceded that McCain had made that difficult. He said McCain was seeking to cast him as a risky choice because he doesn't fit the mold of a traditional presidential candidate.
Obama said voters are still taking their measure of a new kind of presidential candidate, and he said McCain is cynically trying to feed any doubts that voters may have -- and with some success. He cited a McCain TV commercial dismissing him as a mere "celebrity" like stars Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
"You've got statistics that say we've lost another 50,000 jobs, that Florida is in a recession for the first time in a decade and a half, and what was being talked about was Paris and Britney," Obama said. "They're clever on creating distractions from the issues that really matter in people's lives."
Obama focused tightly on the economy in a town hall meeting in Titusville, attacking McCain and President Bush over fairness and balance in money matters. Standing before the National Urban League in Orlando, he drew education into the mix.
"We face serious issues in this election and have real differences," he said. "I'm not going to assault Sen. McCain's character, I'm not going to compare him to pop stars. I will, however, compare our two visions for our economic future."
Saying that education had shaped his life and had been made possible by those who came before him, Obama said McCain simply lacks that commitment.
"This is someone who has been in Washington nearly 30 years, has a pretty slim record on education, and when he has taken a stand it's been the wrong one," Obama said.