Falling behind in the polls, Republican John McCain hopes to shake up the presidential race Wednesday in his third and final debate with Democrat Barack Obama, who will be looking to close the deal with voters unhappy with the country's direction.
With the economic crisis fueling public unease, Obama has built leads nationally and in key battleground states as the turmoil has returned Americans' focus to the policies of the unpopular President George W. Bush.
A new national poll by CBS News and The New York Times showed Obama leading McCain by a commanding 53 percent to 39 percent — a huge leap over the 48-45 lead Obama held in the same poll before last week's town hall debate. Other polls have also shown Obama leading, but by a lesser margin.
The burden now is on McCain to try to reverse his slide. Wednesday night's nationally televised debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, offers the Arizona senator what could be his last big hope to close the gap with Obama. The Illinois senator, who is bidding to become the first black U.S. president, will try to avoid any slip that could undercut his lead.
Both candidates are likely to emphasize pocketbook issues, a burning concern as financial institutions wobble and voters feel the pinch of a faltering economy. Each released proposals this week for how to boost the economy.
Wednesday night's debate is slated to focus entirely on the economy and domestic policy. The candidates will be seated at a table with moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS.
McCain has taken a new approach this week, positioning himself as a fighter for the American middle class and easing off his sharpest attacks on Obama. McCain also previewed a possible debate strategy — arguing that he would be different from Bush and more reliable than Obama.
"We cannot spend the next four years as we have spent much of the last eight: waiting for our luck to change. ... As president I intend to act, quickly and decisively," McCain said Tuesday as he campaigned in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.
He announced a $52.5 billion economic plan Tuesday that calls for halving the tax rate on capital gains and reducing the tax on early withdrawals from retirement accounts, among other measures.
A day earlier, Obama unveiled a $60 billion proposal that includes an extension of unemployment benefits, a 90-day freeze on home foreclosures, penalty-free withdrawals from retirement funds and a $3,000 tax credit for each new job created.
Both candidates call for doing away with the tax on unemployment benefits.
Obama suggested that McCain was more of the same failed Bush economic policies and that putting a Democrat in charge was the only way to fix the economy's woes: "It will take a new direction. It will take new leadership in Washington. It will take a real change in the policies and politics of the last eight years."
Their face-off comes as Obama widens his lead in typically Democratic states and campaigns with an air of optimism about his prospects, while McCain finds himself defending traditionally Republican states with less than three weeks left in the race.
McCain has suggested that he is likely to bring up Obama's links to William Ayers, a founder of the violent anti-war group Weather Underground during the Vietnam War era. Obama was 8 years old when the Weather Underground claimed responsibility for a series of bombings.
Ayers later became a university professor in Chicago and an expert on education. He and Obama both worked with some of the same charity foundations in Chicago, and Ayers hosted a fund-raising reception for Obama when he first ran for the Illinois state Senate.
McCain has softened the attack on the campaign trail in recent days, though not in his TV and radio ads.
His campaign assailed Obama's on Tuesday for its "failure to explain how it is that Barack Obama carried on a decade-long friendship with a man who sought to topple the U.S. government through violence."
Obama campaign aide Robert Gibbs said Obama will try to project an aura of calm leadership during the debate, which Gibbs said the Democratic nominee achieved in two previous debates with McCain.
Polls conducted after the earlier debates found that more people thought Obama had won.
"We're always prepared for him to be hyperaggressive in his attacks," Obama campaign aide Robert Gibbs said of McCain. "I just think that doesn't work in an environment where so many people are concerned about the issues in front of them, not scare tactics they don't see as helping to pay the bills."
Obama's campaign also has taken some shots at McCain, increasingly labeling him "erratic" and "lurching" for solutions to the economic crisis. The words suggest unsteadiness by the four-term senator, who is 72.
The Democrat's campaign released a pre-debate memo Tuesday that argued McCain was "ill-equipped" to lead during this crisis, saying his response "has careened, sometimes changing course within the span of a single day."
McCain, who vowed to campaign workers that he would "whip" his opponent's "you know what" in their final debate, has to carefully gauge how sharply he will attack Obama when they face off.
Many voters appear to be put off by McCain's negative attacks, the CBS-New York Times poll released Tuesday showed. About a fifth of voters, 21 percent, say their opinion of McCain has grown worse in the last few weeks, citing his negative attacks and choice of Sarah Palin, a first-term governor of Alaska, as his running mate.
The CBS-Times poll was conducted Oct. 10-13 by telephone with 1,070 adults nationwide, including 972 likely voters. The sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Compounding McCain's woes, new Quinnipiac University polls released Tuesday showed Obama leading by double digits in three states that Democrat John Kerry won four years ago and that McCain has been trying to put in his column this year — Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
McCain has dispatched his running mate Palin to campaign in usually Republican states such as Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia to shore up party support. However, McCain and Palin both campaigned Tuesday in Pennsylvania and he was to return there Thursday as well, a signal of the campaign's sustained effort to try to pick off a state that Kerry won in 2004.
Such strategies are key to the presidential race, which is won on a state-by-state basis rather than a nationwide popular vote. Each state has a different number of electoral votes that is roughly tied to its population.
Obama's running mate, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, was taking the attack to McCain as he campaigned by bus through Ohio in a bid to capture the state that tipped the 2004 election to Bush.
"What did John McCain do? He laid out some new attacks on Barack Obama," Biden said Tuesday in criticizing McCain's latest campaign speech. "The distinction could not be clearer — one guy is fighting for you and the other guy is fighting mad."
Biden told the audience at a high school in Warren, Ohio, that there's a fundamental difference between the Democratic and Republican tickets. Then someone in the audience shouted, "Brains!" The Delaware senator laughed and the crowd cheered.
"Maybe I should stop here," Biden chuckled.
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