updated 10/8/2008 3:31:39 PM ET 2008-10-08T19:31:39

Republican John McCain, lagging in the polls, was unable to gain ground in the U.S. presidential campaign in his second debate with Democrat Barack Obama.

With time running out — only four weeks remain until the Nov. 4 election — and U.S. and global financial institutions battered as badly as at any time in nearly eight decades, American voters appeared increasingly disinclined to put a Republican back in the White House, regardless of concerns about whether Obama, a first-term senator, has enough experience.

On a day when the U.S. stock market continued its precipitous decline, falling yet another 5.1 percent, the only new proposal McCain brought to voters in the Nashville, Tennessee, confrontation Tuesday night was $300 billion in additional government spending on sour mortgages — a not particularly well-defined federal intervention that was unlikely to have sat well with his conservative base.

Both candidates stood back from the vitriol that was consuming the campaign in the days leading up to the town-hall forum at Belmont University, which snap polls after the give and take showed Obama had won.

CNN/Opinion Research Corp. put the debate in the Obama column by a margin of 54 percent to 30 percent. While 51 percent of those polled said they had a favorable opinion of McCain, unchanged from before the debate started, 64 percent said they had a favorable opinion of Obama, up 4 percentage points from before the debate.

By more than a 2-1 margin, 65 percent to 28 percent, more people said they found Obama more likable than McCain during the debate, according to the CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey.

A CBS News poll of undecided voters gave the contest to Obama 40 percent to 26 percent. Going into the debate, the Gallup Poll daily tracking survey showed Obama leading McCain by 9 percentage points, 51-42, matching his largest lead over the veteran Arizona senator.

Speaking to several thousand people in Indianapolis on Wednesday, Obama acknowledged public anxiety over the financial crisis and urged Americans not to panic.

Video: Playing to the audience "This isn't a time for fear or panic," he said. "This is a time for resolve and leadership."

"I know that we can steer ourselves out of this crisis. Because that's who we are," Obama said. "This is a nation that has faced down war and depression, great challenges and great threats." Indiana, a Republican-leaning state where polls show him within a few percentage points of McCain.

Obama's running mate Joe Biden said Wednesday that his Republican rival's criticism of Obama as a friend of a domestic terrorist was part of an effort to inject fear and loathing into the campaign. Biden called Republican effort to tie Obama to 1960s radical William Ayers, in his words, "mildly dangerous." Biden returned to campaigning after taking several days off to mourn the death of his wife's mother.

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McCain and Palin were planning stops in the key battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, which McCain needs to win to have any chance of overtaking Obama.

Beginning last weekend, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin has repeatedly claimed Obama is close to Ayers, a founder of the violent Vietnam-era group the Weather Underground. Obama and Ayers live in the same Chicago neighborhood and have served together on community boards. Obama has denounced Ayers' radical views and actions.

Video: Biden: McCain campaign appealing to fear "This is beyond disappointing. This is wrong," Biden said at a Florida rally.

He called McCain "an angry man, lurching from one position to another" and making ugly attacks against Obama instead of offering solutions to a troubled country.

The Delaware senator said McCain is trying to distract voters from his support for President George W. Bush's policies. He repeated Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey's line, "You can't call yourself a maverick when all you've ever been is a sidekick."

This presidential campaign, regardless of the outcome, will make history. At 72, McCain would become the oldest first-term U.S. president. Obama would be the first African American to hold the office.

They meet for their final debate on Oct. 15 at Hostra University in Hempstead, New York.

In the debate, Obama quickly looked to link McCain to Bush, describing the financial crisis as the "final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years" that Bush pursued and McCain supported.

Video: Watch the second presidential debate He contended that Bush, McCain and others had favored deregulation of the financial industry, predicting that would "let markets run wild and prosperity would rain down on all of us. It didn't happen."

McCain blamed Obama and Democrats for the collapse of mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, which helped trigger the unfolding economic crisis.

"They're the ones that, with the encouragement of Senator Obama and his cronies and his friends in Washington, that went out and made all these risky loans, gave them to people that could never afford to pay back," McCain said.

Obama responded: "I've got to correct a little bit of Senator McCain's history, not surprisingly. ... In fact, Senator McCain's campaign chairman's firm was a lobbyist on behalf of Fannie Mae, not me."

McCain campaign manager Rick Davis has a stake in a Washington lobbying firm that received thousands of dollars a month from Freddie Mac until recently.

McCain entered the debate in a precarious position because of his links to Bush, a fellow Republican.

That challenge has deepened with retirement accounts evaporating, tens of thousands of homes in foreclosure, unemployment climbing and the stock market plunging.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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