McCain’s plan to shift focus backfires, Obama widens gap

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Barack Obama notched up his widest national opinion poll lead so far on Wednesday as he continued to hammer out his message on the single issue that now looks certain to decide the US presidential campaign – the economy.

By Edward Luce in Indianapolis, Andrew Ward in Allentown, Pennsylvania and Harvey Morris in Washington

The Gallup organisation, whose daily tracking poll indicated 52 per cent of registered voters supported the Democratic candidate, against 41 per cent for John McCain, the Republican – said it appeared the economy was playing to Mr Obama’s advantage.

Mr Obama, who is aggressively targeting once-safe Republican states such as Indiana, on Wednesday sought to wrap himself and his economic policies in the US flag. The last time a Democratic candidate won Indiana was in 1964.

“At each and every moment, we have risen to meet these challenges – not as Democrats, not as Republicans, but as Americans,” he told a rally in Indianapolis. “With that fundamental belief that, here in America, our destiny is not written for us, but by us. That’s who we are, and that’s the country we need to be right now.”

The Gallup survey was based almost entirely on soundings taken before Tuesday night’s presidential debate in Nashville, Tennessee, which separate polls said favoured Mr Obama.

The Republican campaign had tried to switch attention to other issues. But, with newspapers and television carrying reports of soaring levels of psychological stress afflicting the American people, focus was almost entirely on the financial crisis.

Mr Obama, whose advantage over Mr McCain on economic issues has widened even more sharply than his overall lead in the past three weeks, poured scorn on Mr McCain’s attempts to “turn the page” on the economy. “His campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose’,” he told the Indianapolis rally.

“Well I’ve got news for John McCain. This isn’t about losing a campaign – this is about Americans who are losing their jobs, and their homes and their life savings.”

Mr McCain’s best shot on the economy during Tuesday night’s debate was a $300bn (€220bn, £174bn) housing rescue plan in which he proposed a wholesale government buy-out of bad mortgages. “We must go to the heart of the problem right now and that is the housing crisis,” he told supporters at a rally in Pennsylvania where he fleshed out the initiative. “The dream of owning homes must not be crushed under the weight of a bad mortgage.”

The McCain plan would involve the Treasury buying mortgages directly from homeowners and renegotiating their terms. Advisers estimated the cost at $300bn and said it would be paid for by redeploying part of the $700bn financial rescue package approved by Congress last week.

The proposals were Mr McCain’s boldest response yet to the financial crisis and came in stark contrast to the non-interventionist position he staked out earlier in the campaign.

However, the proposal was ridiculed by the Obama campaign. “John McCain wants the government to massively overpay for mortgages in a plan that would guarantee taxpayers lose money, and put them at risk of losing even more if home values don’t recover,” it said in a statement. “The biggest beneficiaries of this plan will be the same financial institutions that got us into this mess, some of whom even committed fraud.”

Mr McCain’s housing proposal indicated a sudden change in thinking by the campaign after aides said, after last week’s congressional vote on the financial rescue package, that the Republican would switch his focus to attacking Mr Obama’s character and liberal record.

Instead, Mr McCain appears to have accepted that the economy will continue to dominate the race and decided to confront the issue more aggressively.

Mr Obama’s aides said they would focus in the last 26 days of the campaign on the largest swing states, in particular Ohio, and also Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida and North Carolina.

They said he would continue to allocate most of his time to the economy. “This campaign will prioritise the economy, the economy, the economy,” said Jen Psaki, an Obama spokesperson.

The Financial Times

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