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Mr. Obama said he would take a “scalpel” to the federal budget and focus on his spending priorities such as energy and health care, while Mr. McCain promised to use a “scalpel and a hatchet,” including a one-year freeze on spending for programs outside of defense, support for veterans and a few other priorities.

Neither has tried to make the case that the next administration may be taking office amid a deep economic downturn and that fiscal policies may have to be adjusted.

Miss MacGuineas said she sympathized with the candidates, who are being forced to adjust their tax and spending programs on the fly in a rapidly deteriorating economic climate.

“It’s tough for them because talking straight about some of these choices three weeks before an election is beyond suicidal,” she said. “But it’s a loss for the American people, because they won’t be as prepared as they should have been when the choices really have to be made.”