(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Leading in polls with 25 days to the election, Democrat Barack Obama is playing it safe, offering careful proposals to address the economic crisis while letting allies respond to John McCain's sharpest charges. The Democratic presidential nominee, famous for his unscripted oratory, now reads his speeches from TelePrompTers, reducing the chance of gaffes. He has not held a news conference in two weeks, although he has done several one-on-one interviews with national and local reporters.
He now refers to Republican John McCain as "my opponent" more often than by name. And he offers carefully limited, comparatively non-controversial remedies for the nation's financial crisis.
Publicly, Obama's aides say he keeps a calm demeanor and measured tone because he doesn't want to fuel the anguish and panic caused by the economic meltdown. Privately, they acknowledge there is no desire to shake up a campaign dynamic that is inching him closer to the White House.
"I don't like to yell," Obama told more than 10,000 people in Columbus on Friday, his fifth large rally in hotly contested Ohio in two days. He was referring to a sound-system glitch, but it could have been a metaphor for his home-stretch strategy.
"He's responding just right, and the polls are reflecting it," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who campaigned with Obama this week and helped lead the counterattacks against McCain. When GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin spoke in Ohio on Thursday, Brown said, she spent too much time on issues such as Obama's ties to Vietnam War-era radical William Ayers, now a college professor in Chicago.
"People are saying, 'What about our jobs, what about the banking situation?'" Brown said.
On Friday as McCain rolled out a new TV ad with his sharpest language yet about Ayers, the sharpest Democratic response came from Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, who told an audience in Springfield, Mo., that McCain is trying to "take the lowest road to the highest office in America."
Obama is seeking a careful balance these days. He criticizes details of McCain's chief economic proposals, and he briefly and broadly disputes Republican attacks on his character, not getting into details. That seems to satisfy Democratic stalwarts who feel recent nominees were too slow to respond to character attacks.
Obama devotes more time to explaining his own long-standing proposals for tax cuts and energy investments. On Friday, he added a temporary program of tax breaks, low-interest government and government-backed private loans for small businesses having trouble borrowing to meet payrolls, maintain inventories or expand.
When this careful rhetoric threatened to bore crowds seeking rhetorical fireworks and when the economic problems turned into a crisis, he added more upbeat lines to his stump speech.
"Now is not the time for fear," Obama said at every Ohio stop this week. "Now is the time for resolve and steady leadership."
Unless asked, he does not mention McCain's and Palin's fiercest line of attack: that he has associated with Ayers, a former 1960s radical who helped found the violent Weather Underground. When questioned on a radio talk show this week, Obama said that when he began working with Ayers on two nonprofit organization boards in Chicago a quarter century later he thought that the college professor, who lives in his neighborhood, had been rehabilitated.
Increasingly, high-profile supporters take the sharper jabs at McCain before Obama comes on stage. On a sunny street with a few thousand people in Chillicothe, Ohio, on Friday, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland played the part.
"The McCain-Palin campaign and some of their followers unfortunately want you to be afraid of Barack Obama," he said, adding that "others" have spread untruths about the nominee.
Ohio's gun owners, Strickland said, "have nothing to fear from Barack Obama." Nor do people who revere "family and faith," he said, calling Obama as "a strong Christian, family man."
The National Rifle Association is running ads against Obama. Internet-driven rumors have falsely claimed he is a Muslim.
Brown, the first-term senator, also criticized McCain by name in Chillicothe, saying he learned his economic lessons from the Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial pages.
Obama does not leave all the heavy lifting to surrogates. Referring to McCain and Palin, he told the Chillicothe audience, "it's not hard to rile up a crowd by stoking anger and division." He said Americans want "someone who can lead this country" in a time of economic crisis, not divide it.
Noting that McCain advisers have said their candidate will lose if the campaign's focus stays on the economy, Obama said: "So in the last couple of days, we've seen a barrage of nasty insinuations and attacks, and I'm sure we'll see much more over the next 25 days. We know what's coming.... But it won't work."
Obama is playing it safe on policy, too, avoiding the far-reaching proposals that have caused McCain headaches. McCain's call this week for the government to buy bad home-loan mortgages at full face value and renegotiate them at a reduced price set off loud protests from conservatives and liberals alike.
On Friday, McCain called for legislation to suspend a requirement that investors age 70 1/2 begin to draw down their retirement accounts, which could force them to sell stocks at low prices.
Obama's proposals have been more limited. His proposal Friday to temporarily extend an expiring tax break that lets small businesses immediately write off investments would cover only investments up to $250,000. It would cost the Treasury $900 million, Obama aides said.
Campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "The other campaign has been focused entirely on us. We've been focused entirely on the economy."