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Debate on Economy Grows More Urgent

McCain, a senator from Arizona and the presumptive Republican nominee, said that "many American families are hurting very badly." He called for cutting corporate taxes, repealing the alternative minimum tax and making Bush's tax cuts permanent. Although he once said that "I still need to be educated" about economics, McCain defended his experience, saying he has been involved in such issues for 25 years.

Campaigning in Atlanta, he said, "It's pretty obvious the economy is on most people's minds now and is clearly the greatest challenge that we face" -- an acknowledgment of how the issue has transformed a race once expected to center on Iraq, terrorism and national security, all issues on which McCain would rather debate his eventual Democratic opponent.

Just 19 percent of Americans consider the economy in good shape, the most negative the public has been in 15 years, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Thirty-nine percent named the economy the top issue, nearly four times as many as in September.

Bush aides dismissed the Democratic criticism as predictable campaign-trail rhetoric that ignores the president's record of 52 straight months of job creation, ending in December. "Two candidates for president who are duking it out in the Democratic primary are no doubt going to make charges against this president, even if they don't ring true," said White House press secretary Dana Perino.

White House economists continued to resist the recession label but said this will be "the worst time," until tax rebate checks of $600 for most workers go out in May. "We have definitely downgraded our forecast for this quarter," said Edward Lazear, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. "I'm still not saying that there is a recession. There is no denying that when you get negative job numbers, realistically the economy is less strong than we had hoped it would be."

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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