DOWNINGTOWN, Pa. — Invigorated by Wednesday's presidential debate, John McCain returned to the campaign trail Thursday with a message more focused on his economic message and less on attacking Barack Obama.
After confronting Obama about his association with former Weather Underground member William Ayers Wednesday night, McCain steered clear of the subject at a rally in a suburban Philadelphia athletic center. Instead, he was in full populist pitch, stressing that he, not Obama, better understands what voters are going through and that he's the candidate with better solutions to their problems.
"Our economy is in crisis. Financial markets are collapsing," McCain said. "Credit is drying up. Your savings are in danger. Your retirement is at risk. . . . While your most important asset — your home — is losing value everyday."
He roused the crowd by invoking "Joe the plumber," whom he repeatedly mentioned in the debate as an aspiring small-business owner threatened by Obama's plan to tax incomes over $250,000.
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"Joe's the man!" McCain said at the rally as supporters chanted "Joe! Joe! Joe!"
"He won, and small businesses won across America," McCain said. "They won because the American people won't let Sen. Obama raise their taxes in a tough economy. They're not going to let him do it, my friends."
Obama's proposals, however, would raise taxes only on individuals who make more than $200,000 a year and joint filers who make more than $250,000.
Although McCain dropped Ayers Thursday, the Republican National Committee picked him up in a massive new robocall campaign. The call begins: "Hello. I'm calling for John McCain and the RNC," then says that voters "need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home, and killed Americans."
Obama was a child when Ayers was engaged in violent anti-Vietnam War protests, had no connection to them, and denounces them. Ayers is now an education professor in Chicago. Obama once served with Ayers on a community education board funded by Republican donors. He says Ayers has no connection to his campaign.
On the stump, McCain emphasized his experience, and charged that Obama would require on-the-job training in the White House. "The next president won't have the time to get used to the office. He won't have the luxury of studying up on the issues before he acts. He will have to act immediately."
In the next breath, McCain seemed to take a page from the Obama playbook by campaigning against President Bush, albeit indirectly.
"We cannot spend the next four years as we have spent the last eight: waiting for our luck to change," he said. "The hour is late, our troubles are getting worse, our enemies watch. . . . We need a new direction now. We have to fight."
Obama, campaigning at an apple stand in Londonderry, N.H., mocked McCain's attempts to separate himself from Bush.
"Last night, Senator McCain said that George Bush won't be on the ballot this November," Obama said, referring to Wednesday's debate. "But let's be clear, his policies will. Because in three debates and over 20 months, John McCain hasn't explained a single thing he would do differently from George Bush when it comes to the most important economic issue we face today. Not one.
"Here's the truth, New Hampshire: John McCain voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time. That's not change — it's just more of the same," Obama said.
Despite his considerable fundraising edge over McCain, Obama began Thursday in New York with a $30,800-a-plate breakfast fund-raiser, with most of the proceeds going to the Democratic National Committee. He was to cap off the day with a nighttime concert back in New York featuring Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel, with tickets going for as much as $10,000.
Obama recalled his narrow defeat to Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary and warned supporters not to get "cocky" in the last 19 days just because he's ahead in the polls.
"I learned right here that you can't let up or pay too much attention to the polls," he said. "We've got to keep making our case for change. We've got to keep fighting for every vote. We've got to keep running through the finish line."
McCain also implored his supporters not to let up, telling them that "Senator Obama is measuring the drapes" in the White House.
Thursday was McCain's 23rd visit to Pennsylvania since January. His campaign thinks he can still win the Keystone State, even though Obama leads in Pennsylvania by 13.6 points, according to RealClearPolitics, which averaged five state polls taken there over the past 10 days.
"He's not winning enough," said G. Terry Madonna, the director of Franklin & Marshall College's Center for Politics and Public Affairs. "The chess board isn't aligned properly for McCain in any dimension."
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