Mr. McCain, scrambling to defend Republican red states and losing ground nationally, went after the Democrat as a big spender who loves taxes, while Mr. Obama said he would keep focusing on the economy - an issue that has helped him build a sizable lead and turn battleground states into potential winners.
“Senator McCain’s own campaign said publicly last week that if we keep on talking about the economic crisis, we lose, so we need to change the subject,” said Mr. Obama, who as front-runner is seeking to ride out his poll surge to a victory on Nov. 4.
“I would love to see the next three weeks devoted to talking about the economy, devoted to talking about health care, devoted to talking about energy and figuring out how the American people can send their kids to college.”
The Illinois senator indicated that he would continue the cautious approach for the next 19 days. He has been acting presidential, asking the nation to remain calm amid the economic crisis and, behind the scenes, is preparing for the possible transition while Democratic congressional leaders are laying groundwork for an Obama presidency.
But his campaign has warned supporters not to count on polls and tells voters that they must get out to the polls to avoid any surprises on Election Day. Surrogates and Web ads have depicted a “nightmare” low-turnout scenario that would result in a President McCain, an attempt to scare his voters into making sure they show up on Nov. 4.
Mr. McCain’s strategy Wednesday night offered a glimpse at campaign themes for the remainder of the election: He attacked Mr. Obama for telling “Joe the plumber” - Joe Wurzelbacher, an Ohio man looking to buy a plumbing business - he would raise taxes on the rich to help “spread the wealth.”
The senator from Arizona is competing on a vastly different electoral map than what was before him when capturing the Republican presidential nomination.
The coalition of independent voters and disaffected Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters is slipping away from him, and he is aggressively campaigning in states once considered safely Republican, such as Virginia and North Carolina.
Mr. Obama has catapulted to a solid lead as voters increasingly view him as more qualified to handle the economic crisis. Two-thirds of voters said in a recent CBS poll that they believe Mr. McCain is running a negative campaign, another element that has hurt the Republican’s standing.
Mr. Obama has pulled in more Republicans fed up with the Bush administration and has made up ground among the female and working-class constituencies Mrs. Clinton held during the long Democratic primary.
During the debate, Mr. McCain fell back on Republican issues, saying Mr. Obama loved taxes and big spending and laughing when Mr. Obama said “nobody likes taxes.”
“If nobody likes taxes, let’s not raise anybody’s, OK?” Mr. McCain said. Later, he asked Mr. Obama: “Why do we always have to spend more?”
After the men sparred over the issue on stage, each campaign sent out reports detailing the unprecedented amount of money spent on negative ads.
The McCain campaign sent a tally by the Campaign Media Analysis Group showing Mr. Obama has spent $29 million on positive ads and $42 million on negative ads. But that same analysis showed Mr. McCain has spent $27 million on negative ads and just $5 million on positive spots.