Bidding for a comeback, Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Tuesday set out a new $52.5 billion plan to ease the economic pain of middle class Americans swept up in the country's financial chaos, as polls showed voters turning to Democrat Barack Obama for leadership in the turmoil.
During a swing through Pennsylvania, McCain, the 72-year-old Arizona Senate veteran, called for the elimination of taxes on unemployment benefits, lowering what the government takes from seniors as they draw on retirement accounts and accelerating tax deductions for people forced to sell assets at a loss in the troubled market. He also said that as president, he would order the Treasury Department to guarantee 100 percent of all savings for the next six months.
He also kept up his campaign tactic of trying to sow distrust among voters about Obama.
"Perhaps never before in history have the American people been asked to risk so much based on so little," McCain told a suburban Philadelphia audience.
McCain said President Bush's $250 billion plan to buy shares in the nation's leading banks — advance word of which helped stocks soar on Monday — should be short-term and last only until the institutions are reformed and put on a sound footing again.
McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, said the Arizona senator's economic plan will "get this economy moving again," during a campaign rally in Scranton, Pa.
Looking toward Wednesday's third and final presidential debate, Obama produced his own new plan on Monday, calling, among other ideas, for a 90-day moratorium on home mortgage foreclosures and tax breaks to businesses that create new jobs.
Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said Tuesday that McCain's "trickle-down, ideological recipes won't strengthen our economy and grow our middle-class." Burton added that the McCain plan provides "no tax relief at all to 101 million hardworking families, including 97 percent of senior citizens, and it does nothing to cut taxes for small businesses or give them access to credit."
Democratic vice presidential Joe Biden accused McCain of having no new ideas. "What did John McCain do? He laid out some new attacks on Barack Obama," Biden said at an Ohio campaign stop. "The distinction could not be clearer — one guy is fighting for you and the other guy is fighting mad."
U.S. voters go to the polls in three weeks amid the worst economic uncertainty to grip the country in decades. Retirement savings are at risk in the gyrating stock market, the values of homes — the foundation of middle class economic security — are sinking, tens of thousands of homeowners face foreclosure and unemployment has been moving relentlessly upward.
McCain's candidacy has slumped under the weight of growing voter anxiety about the country's economic future, in part because of his inescapable links with unpopular fellow Republican President George W. Bush.
New polling, meanwhile, held more discouraging news for McCain.
Surveys in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota — states that typically vote Democratic, but that McCain once hoped to win — showed the Republican losing ground.
In Michigan, a Quinnipiac University poll for The Wall Street Journal and the Web site of The Washington Post showed Obama — who would be the country's first black president — leading his opponent 54 percent to 38 percent. Earlier this month, McCain announced he was pulling staff and advertising out of the state, ceding it to Obama.
The same poll in Wisconsin put Obama ahead by a 17 percentage-point spread after the second presidential debate, 54-37. In Minnesota, the Quinnipiac survey for the Journal and the Post Web site had Obama with a 51-40 percentage point advantage after the second debate.
The latest Washington Post-ABC News national poll showed Obama with a 10 point lead, 53-43 percent, among likely voters with an even larger 2-to-1 margin among voters who put the economy as the top issue in the campaign. And the most recent Gallup Poll tracking survey showed Obama up by 10 points, 51-41. Polls show Obama now leading in enough states to be within reach of the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory.
Obama was taking Tuesday off to prepare for coming debate, while McCain's No. 2, Sarah Palin joined McCain in Pennsylvania, one of the few Democratic-leaning states where the Republican is still aggressively campaigning although polls show Obama with a solid lead.
Under criticism from fellow Republicans, McCain reset his campaign strategy yet again with a new stump speech Monday that eased back on harsh attacks against Obama while at the same time delivering some of his toughest criticism so far of Bush's economic policies.
In an interview with CNN, McCain was asked about his campaign's recent tactic of attacking Obama for his association with William Ayers, a founder of the radical Vietnam War-era Weather Underground, which was responsible for bomb attacks on federal buildings.
Obama has denounced Ayers' radical past and actions, which occurred when Obama was 8 years old. The two men subsequently served together on the board of a Chicago education foundation and live in the same neighborhood. Ayers hosted a small get-acquainted coffee for Obama when he first ran for public office in Illinois.
"The fact is that Senator Obama was not truthful in telling the American people about his relationship. Very frankly, Dana, I don't give a damn about an old unrepentant terrorist, but what I do care is telling the truth to the American people," the Arizona senator said in response to a question from CNN correspondent Dana Bash.
The latest shift in the campaign appears to have grown out of the realization that the assaults were not hindering Obama's rise in the polls. The changed tone was stark.
"The national media has written us off," McCain said. "But they forgot to let you decide."
"What America needs in this hour is a fighter," he said, adding that he knows Americans are worried about the direction of the country.
"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," McCain said, a clear reference to his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "I'm an American. And I choose to fight."