NEW ORLEANS - Republican John McCain yesterday welcomed Democrat Barack Obama to the fall campaign for the White House with a blistering attack on his judgment and a charge that he had "voted to deny funds to the soldiers who have done a brilliant and brave job" in Iraq.

"Americans ought to be concerned about the judgment of a presidential candidate who says he's ready to talk, in person and without conditions, with tyrants from Havana to Pyongyang, but hasn't traveled to Iraq to meet with General [David] Petraeus and see for himself the progress he threatens to reverse," McCain said as his rival wrapped up the Democratic nomination.

McCain cast Obama, a first-term Illinois senator, as lacking the experience and discretion to be a wartime commander in chief, and he argued that the Democrat's calls for a troop withdrawal from Iraq would imperil the United States.

The Arizona senator mocked Obama's promise of change for a country weary of the status quo, uttering the word "change" no fewer than 33 times.

"He is an impressive man who makes a great first impression," McCain said. "But he hasn't been willing to make the tough calls, to challenge his party, to risk criticism from his supporters, to bring real change to Washington. I have."

In a speech intended to mark the start of the general election, the Republican defended himself against Obama's frequent claim that McCain is "running for President Bush's third term" because McCain supports the Iraq war and wants to extend the president's tax cuts.

Voters don't buy it, McCain said.

"The American people didn't get to know me yesterday, as they are just getting to know Senator Obama," McCain said. "They know I have a long record of bipartisan problem-solving. They've seen me put our country before any president, before any party, before any special interest, before my own interest."

McCain sought to distance himself from Bush by delivering the speech in New Orleans, a city whose ravages from Hurricane Katrina became a glaring symbol of the Bush administration's failures. The Arizona senator campaigned here six weeks ago, vowing that such a disaster would never again be handled in such a disgraceful way.

He contrasted his views on global warming and energy independence with those of Bush, and he criticized Obama for voting for Bush's energy bill, which he said gave more breaks to the oil industry.

"I opposed it because I know we won't achieve energy independence by repeating the mistakes of the last half-century. That's not change we can believe in," McCain said, once again evoking Obama's campaign theme.

McCain wrapped up the GOP nomination in March and since then has laid the groundwork for the general election. *