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In Parallel Wording, Divergent Messages
McCain, Obama Both Talk of Fear, Change

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Both John McCain and Barack Obama mention "fear" when they talk about the nation's financial crisis, but any similarity in their messages ends with that word.

"I know what fear feels like: It's a thief in the night who robs your strength," McCain told an audience in Blue Bell, Pa., yesterday as he promoted his plans for curing the nation's economic ills. "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."

Obama, speaking to a crowd of supporters in Ohio last week, reminded them of "some of the most famous words ever spoken by an American," and began, " 'The only thing we have to fear . . . ' "

"Is fear itself," the crowd said along with him.

As Obama and McCain honed their economic messages in advance of tonight's final presidential debate, there was more to their words than a confident Democratic front-runner invoking the image of a legendary Democratic president or the former prisoner of war drawing on his darkest days.

The rhetoric that Obama and McCain use to describe how they would address the nation's crippling economic woes goes to the heart of the appeal each is making to voters.

McCain's is a fiery denunciation of the special interests, a promise to "clean up the mess of corruption, infighting and selfishness in Washington," an invitation to choose experience over risk, a call to " fight," as he intoned 13 times in his speech yesterday.

"Stand up, stand up and fight!" he shouted. "America's worth fighting for!"

Obama's approach is cool and analytical, offering what he says will be a "steady hand" of leadership instead of "erratic" reaction.

"The American story has never been about things coming easy -- it's been about rising to the moment when the moment is hard, about having steel nerves when things are fearful," Obama says.

"We can come together to restore confidence in the American economy. We can renew that fundamental belief that in America, our destiny is not written for us, it's written by us."

There is no doubt that McCain has the tougher road. Not only must he convince voters that his approach is best. He must refute the charge that, with 26 years in Congress and as head of the party to whom voters assign most of the blame, he is part of the problem.

Since the crisis began, he has attempted to cut his ties to the Bush administration, as he did again yesterday, criticizing the "last eight years" and declaring: "We have to act immediately. We have to change direction now."

And he continues to paint Obama as a chameleon, too unknown and inexperienced to be trusted.

"He is an eloquent speaker, but even he can't turn a record of supporting higher taxes into a credible promise to cut taxes," McCain said. "Perhaps never in history have the American people been asked to risk so much based on so little."

McCain continued: "You know my record. You don't have to hope I will do what I promise. . . . Change isn't a political slogan, it's what I've been doing my whole career."

Obama uses almost the exact words to opposite effect. As he campaigned in Pennsylvania in recent days, Obama noted that McCain alternates between offering "experience" and "change."

"Change isn't just a motto," Obama told crowds in Philadelphia, and he added playfully: "Don't be hoodwinked. Don't be bamboozled. Don't fall for the okey-doke."

He often portrays the crisis as an opportunity to meet the challenges of patriotism and common pursuit.

"If we've learned anything from this economic crisis, it's that we're all connected, all of us -- black, white; Hispanic, Asian, Native American; young, old; rich, poor; management, labor -- it doesn't matter," Obama said. "We're all in this together, and will rise or fall as one nation, as one people."

Polls clearly indicate that Obama, for now at least, has the upper hand and that the crisis has greatly enhanced his position.

On the ground in Pennsylvania, where Obama and his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., campaigned over the weekend, and where McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin stumped yesterday, Democratic leaders said economic worries have transformed what was once a close contest.

Gov. Edward G. Rendell said Obama's "calm and reasoned approach . . . is what people want to hear, and it's turned the election around."

Rendell, like Obama and practically every Democratic surrogate, referred to McCain's performance in the economic discussion as "erratic."

And so it was notable yesterday that McCain tried to put the label elsewhere.

The "hard-earned savings of Americans should not be penalized by the erratic behavior of politicians,'' McCain said.

He was referring to Congress, and the Bush administration.

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