By Michael D. Shear and Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
HERSHEY, Pa., Oct. 28 -- Twenty months after announcing his candidacy by declaring that "I know how the world works; I know the good and evil in it," Sen. John McCain has been forced by the global economic collapse to close his presidential campaign on pocketbook issues rather than foreign policy.
On Wednesday in Florida, the Republican will give one last nod to national security issues, holding a meeting with his foreign policy advisers and giving a short speech. Aides said he will attempt to draw connections between national security, energy and the economy, arguing that Sen. Barack Obama is not ready to lead on those issues.
But the rest of his day will be rallies listed on his schedule as "Joe the Plumber Events," part of a final appeal charging that his rival would raise taxes on hardworking Americans and give the proceeds to others, driving down the economy.
As they stump across Pennsylvania, Florida and other battlegrounds, McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, now refer to Obama as the "Redistributionist in Chief" or "Barack the Redistributionist" or "Barack the Wealth Spreader."
At a campaign rally in Chester, Pa., held in a cold rain, Obama pushed back on the economic assault, saying: "There's only one candidate with a plan that could eventually raise taxes on millions of middle-class families, and it isn't me."
The Democrat told the thousands of people who braved temperatures in the 30s and blustery winds that McCain lacks credibility on the economy and taxes.
"John McCain has ridden shotgun as George Bush has driven our economy toward a cliff, and now he wants to take the wheel and step on the gas," he said. "When it comes to the issue of taxes, saying that John McCain is running for a third Bush term isn't being fair to George W. Bush."
The focus on the economy is a far cry from the October argument McCain once thought he would make to voters. In the days before Florida's Republican primary in January, he said that national security would be the central focus of his campaign.
"Even if the economy is the, quote, number one issue, the real issue will remain America's security," McCain told reporters in the back of his Straight Talk Express bus. "And if they choose to say, 'Look, I do not want this guy, because he was not as good on home loan mortgages,' or whatever it is, I will accept their verdict. I am running because of the transcendental challenge of the 21st century, which is radical Islamic extremism, as you know."
Now, though, McCain focuses almost all of his time on the economic crisis that began in mid-September. Inspired by Obama's offhand comment to Ohio plumber Joe Wurzelbacher about "spreading the wealth around," McCain is betting his White House hopes on taxes, whipping up his crowds with predictions of further economic decline in an Obama administration.
"Senator Obama believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that grow our economy and create jobs," McCain thundered to almost 10,000 supporters who gathered Tuesday morning at a stadium in Hershey. "There's nothing fair about driving our economy into the ground."
Palin went even further at the event, quoting Wurzelbacher as saying that Obama's economic policy "sounds like socialism" and declaring that "now is not the time to experiment with that."
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), a top Obama ally, said in a telephone interview that the redistribution charge has "excited the Republican base" in his state the way it was "once excited about Sarah Palin." But he said its effectiveness among independents and conservative Democrats "is another question."
Rendell spoke from western Pennsylvania, where he was conducting a bus tour on Obama's behalf, and he said he has seen no evidence that the charge is taking hold. "I'm not sensing it gets much traction with our voters and independents," he said.
By contrast, McCain's chief strategists think that the late focus on spreading wealth has their Democratic rival on his heels, having finally crystallized for voters the difference between McCain and Obama.
"People are starting to really see what's at the heart of [Obama's] economic philosophy," said Mike DuHaime, McCain's political director. The race "is tightening, and I think this is a big part of the reason why," he said. DuHaime told reporters on the campaign plane that the tax message is helping to generate a last-minute shift in McCain's direction among undecided voters.
Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, a McCain backer, said McCain needs to concentrate on the tax message and "the triad of Obama, Reid, Pelosi," referring to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). He added that McCain's new economic message is working.
Polling suggests that that optimism may be misplaced. While McCain has gained ground on the overall question of who would better handle economic issues, he still trails Obama among likely voters, 52 to 43 percent, according to the Washington Post tracking poll.
That is an improvement for McCain, who was behind by a wider margin on the issue a week ago. But on taxes specifically, likely voters still side with Obama over McCain, 51 to 41, a margin that has not changed since McCain began the "spreading the wealth" message.
McCain has attempted to woo lower-income whites with his appeal on taxes, but the Post poll shows no evidence of movement. The group is about evenly split on the issue, with 46 percent favoring Obama's approach and 44 percent preferring McCain's, almost exactly where they were a week ago.
Still, Obama strategists said they think McCain's closing tax argument could have an effect on the dwindling number of undecided voters.
"That's why he explains his tax plan in every single speech," a senior aide said of Obama.
At each event, Obama asks those who earn less than $250,000 a year to raise their hands, saying that "if you make less than a quarter of a million dollars a year -- and that includes, by the way, 98 percent of small businesses and 99 percent of plumbers -- you will not see your taxes increase one single dime."
That construct is not quite accurate. Obama's $250,000 figure refers to family income, rather than individual, and the message was further muddled Tuesday by his running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), who said tax breaks should go to "middle-class people -- people making under $150,000 a year."
The McCain campaign jumped on that to portray Obama's plan as flexible, and ready to be scaled down should Obama take office. "Are you getting an idea of what's on their mind? A little sneak peek," McCain said in Hershey. "It's interesting how their definition of rich has a way of creeping down."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin in Hershey and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.