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Obama focuses on faith; McCain slams earmarks in crime speech

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Sen. Barack Obama pushes faith-based groups, touches briefly on his faith
  • Obama details plan to expand Bush administration's faith-based programs
  • Sen. John McCain tells law enforcement officials he'll veto bills with earmarks
  • McCain heading to Colombia and Mexico to discuss free trade, immigration
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(CNN) -- Sen. Barack Obama said Tuesday that Washington needs to draw on faith-based groups to solve the challenges the country is facing, "from saving our planet to ending poverty."

Obama said that change comes from the bottom up, and "few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues, temples and mosques."

"I'm not saying that faith-based groups are an alternative to government or secular nonprofits. And I'm not saying that they're somehow better at lifting people up. What I'm saying is that we all have to work together -- Christian and Jew, Hindu and Muslim, believer and nonbeliever alike -- to meet the challenges of the 21st century," he said in Zanesville, Ohio.

Obama praised faith-based efforts and proposals by former President Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore and President Bush, but he said the Bush administration's plan never fulfilled its promise to "rally the armies of compassion."

"Support for social services to the poor and the needy have consistently been underfunded," he said.

"Rather than promoting the cause of all faith-based organizations, former officials in the [Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives] have described how, at times, it was used to promote partisan interests," he said, adding that as a result, smaller groups have been shortchanged.

Obama said the relationship between the White House and grass-roots groups "has to be a real partnership, not a photo-op."

The presumptive Democratic nominee detailed his plan to expand Bush's faith-based programs and establish a new Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

"The new name will reflect a new commitment," he said.

The council will strengthen nonprofit religious and community groups by providing funding and making it easier to access "the information and support they need to run that program," he said.

Obama said his proposal will respect the separation of church and state. Under his plan, groups accepting federal grant money cannot use the funds "to proselytize to the people you help" and employees cannot be hired or fired on the basis of religion.

Additionally, federal dollars going to places of worship can be used only on secular programs.

Obama touched briefly on this role of faith in his life, pointing out that he "didn't grow up in a particularly religious household."

He said his experience in Chicago, Illinois, showed him how faith and values could be an anchor in his life.

"In time, I came to see my faith as being both a personal commitment to Christ and a commitment to my community; that while I could sit in church and pray all I want, I wouldn't be fulfilling God's will unless I went out and did the Lord's work."

Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain focused on crime Tuesday and said Congress "needs to get its priorities straight" so that law enforcement officials can have the resources they need. Video Watch McCain talk law enforcement »

"Funds distributed by the Department of Justice are too often earmarked according to their value to the re-election of members of Congress instead of their value to police," McCain said at the National Sheriffs' Association's 68th annual conference in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Because of earmarks, "millions of dollars are wasted every year, and a lot of good ideas and programs in local law enforcement never get funded," he said.

McCain called earmark spending bills "the broken windows of the federal budget process" and vowed to veto every bill with earmarks until Congress stops including them in legislation.

"It may take a while for Congress to adjust, but sooner or later, they'll figure out that there's a new sheriff in town," he said.

McCain also stressed the importance of judicial nominations, saying that as president, he would "look for accomplished men and women with a proven record of excellence in the law and a proven commitment to judicial restraint."

The presumptive Republican nominee blasted the federal government for failing to protect the country's borders. "This serious dereliction of duty must and will end," he said.

"Our compassion for laborers who entered this country unlawfully -- our understanding of their struggles, even as we act to secure the border -- speaks well of America. But this respect does not extend to criminals who came here to break our laws and do harm to people."

McCain said he would expand the Criminal Alien Program and require that the federal government pick up more of the costs associated with deporting and detaining criminal aliens.

After his address, McCain was to fly to Latin America for stops in Colombia and Mexico, where he planned to discuss free trade and immigration.

McCain said he had no intention of criticizing Obama during his trip.

The two campaigns continued to go back and forth Tuesday about remarks from retired Gen. Wesley Clark, an Obama military adviser.

On Sunday, Clark questioned the relevance of McCain's military experience. Video Watch the fight over McCain's war record »

"I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war. And he has traveled all over the world. But he hasn't held executive responsibility," Clark said on CBS' "Face the Nation."

The McCain camp called the remarks "the lowest form of politics," and Obama's campaign issued a statement rejecting what Clark said.

On Monday night, Clark tried to explain his remarks, saying he honors McCain's service but that although his time in Vietnam and as a POW "shows courage and commitment to our country ... it doesn't include executive experience wrestling with national policy or go-to-war decisions."

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On Tuesday, Obama chief strategist David Axelrod called the matter a "closed episode." Video Watch Axelrod's take on the exchange »

The McCain campaign criticized Obama on Tuesday for not calling on Clark to apologize.

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