Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Both major presidential candidates sharpened the focus of their campaigns for the final three-week dash on Tuesday, with Sen. Barack Obama offering a detailed economic recovery program and Sen. John McCain unveiling a fiery new stump speech that stresses his service to the nation and his will to fight.

After weeks of offering mainly generalities about the financial crisis on Wall Street, Mr. Obama used a campaign stop in Toledo, Ohio, to lay out a $60 billion plan that would include a 90-day foreclosure moratorium for certain homeowners and allow Americans to withdraw up to $10,000 from their retirement accounts without penalty through the end of next year.

He also called for a $3,000 tax credit for each additional full-time job a business creates. That means a business that adds five jobs would get a $15,000 break. That incentive would end after 2010 and would cost $40 billion, the campaign estimates.

Mr. Obama said Congress could enact the proposals quickly in a special session later this year. Failing that, the administration could use its regulatory powers to put them into effect.

“We can restore a sense of fairness and balance that will give every American a fair shot at the American dream. And, above all, we can restore confidence - confidence in America, confidence in our economy and confidence in ourselves,” he said during his only campaign event of the day.

Mr. McCain, meanwhile, pirouetted away from the sharp criticism of Mr. Obama that has characterized his recent appearances to stress his own integrity and experience - even while distancing himself from the economic policies of President Bush.

After a nearly monthlong slide in the polls, and with anxious Republicans - including some of his own campaign staff - expressing doubts about his strategy, Mr. McCain energetically declared that his underdog status left him positioned to surprise the prognosticators just as he did in the primaries.

“My friends, we’ve got them just where we want them,” the smiling candidate told thousands of cheering supporters at a rally in the battleground state of Virginia, a once-reliable red state that is now tilting blue.

“Let me give you the state of the race today: We have 22 days to go. We’re six points down. The national media has written us off. Senator Obama is measuring the drapes,” Mr. McCain said in Virginia Beach, where he was joined by his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin.

Whipping the crowd into a frenzy, he yelled: “Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. America is worth fighting for. Nothing is inevitable here. We never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history.

“Now, let’s go win this election and get this country moving again.”

Mr. Obama, whose election prospects have risen as the economy has sunk, stressed the financial problems of families in his Toledo speech.

“It’s getting harder and harder to make the mortgage, or fill up your gas tank, or even keep the electricity on at the end of the month,” he said to a crowd of about 3,000. “At this rate, the question isn’t just ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ It’s ‘Are you better off than you were four weeks ago?’ ”

In a departure, however, he acknowledged that the economic crisis was caused in part by families running up huge debts. “Part of the reason this crisis occurred, if we’re honest with ourselves, is that everyone was living beyond their means - from Wall Street to Washington to even some on Main Street,” he said.

Proposing to “give people the breathing room they need to get back on their feet,” he said his proposed moratorium on foreclosures would apply to homeowners who are living in their homes and making good-faith efforts to make their mortgage payments.

He also said the Treasury and the Federal Reserve should make arrangements to lend to cash-strapped state and municipal governments.

Mr. McCain, meanwhile, sought to recast himself as the country-first fighter whose steely resolve was carved from a life of service and more than five years in a Vietnamese prison camp.

“What America needs in this hour is a fighter - someone who puts all his cards on the table and trusts the judgment of the American people. I come from a long line of McCains who believed that to love America is to fight for her. I have fought for you most of my life. There are other ways to love this country, but I’ve never been the kind to do it from the sidelines,” he said.

Striking a somber tone without mentioning his days in a box-sized prison cell, he said: “I know what fear feels like. It’s a thief in the night who robs your strength. I know what hopelessness feels like. It’s an enemy who defeats your will. I felt those things once before. I will never let them in again. I’m an American. And I choose to fight.”

Doing away with his daily barrage of rapid-response messages and hastily compiled campaign ads - covering everything from Mr. Obama’s acquaintances to niggling rebuttals of comments from the Democratic running mate - Mr. McCain focused on the serious issues that await the next president.

“We cannot spend the next four years as we have spent much of the last eight - waiting for our luck to change,” Mr. McCain said. “The hour is late; our troubles are getting worse; our enemies watch. We have to act immediately. We have to change direction now.”

Mr. McCain and his advisers have been struggling with how best to respond to the financial crisis since mid-September, which has helped Mr. Obama climb in the polls for nearly a month. A Gallup tracking poll of likely voters conducted Friday through Sunday had Mr. Obama ahead by 8.5 points.

The Republican, once known for his “straight talk” and access to the media, spent much of the past month hunkered down, relying on advice from Bush administration aides who counseled a negative approach toward the senator from Illinois. The move has backfired as Mr. McCain is now being painted as angry and engaging in just the types of personal attacks he had vowed to end.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

•Explore different election-night scenarios with our ‘Road to 270’ interactive electoral college map.

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