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Candidates battle over the economy

Reston and Finnegan are Times staff writers.

Campaigning amid another round of troubling economic news, John McCain and Barack Obama dashed across Republican-leaning swing states Thursday, sparring over their plans to spur a recovery.

Hours after the government reported that the nation’s gross domestic product had shrunk over the summer and that consumers had dramatically cut their spending, Obama placed the blame squarely on the Bush administration, telling voters in Florida: “This didn’t happen by accident.”

“Our falling GDP is a direct result of a failed economic theory of eight years of trickle-down, Wall-Street-first, Main-Street-last policies that have driven our economy into a ditch,” the Illinois senator said in Sarasota.

In his four public events across Ohio, McCain never specifically mentioned the new reports, but spoke more broadly about the struggles of America’s middle class and promised “to get this economy out of the ditch.”

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Asked about the economic numbers in an interview with Fox News, McCain said that “these are tough times” and that he was particularly concerned about the slide in consumer confidence.

“It is of the utmost seriousness, and also I don’t think, frankly, [we] have focused on one of the real catalysts of the problem -- if not the catalyst -- and that is home ownership,” McCain told Fox before outlining his plan to buy up struggling homeowners’ mortgages.

The Commerce Department reported Thursday that the economy essentially went into reverse in the third quarter, shrinking by 0.3% -- the deepest decline in economic demand since 2001. Personal consumption declined 3.1% in the three months ending Sept. 30. It was the first time since 1991 that consumer spending dropped outright, and the biggest such decline since 1980.

Both candidates kept a tight focus on economic issues as they campaigned in states that President Bush won in 2004.

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McCain set off on a two-day swing through Ohio that began in the conservative farm country outside Toledo and ended in economically struggling Youngstown. In four rallies, he warned voters that Obama’s plan to roll back the Bush tax cuts for top earners would harm small businesses. (The group FactCheck.org has said that only about 650,000 small-business employers would be affected -- not 23 million, as McCain has said.)

At McCain’s side for the first time was the campaign’s chief symbol for his small-business argument -- Joe “the Plumber” Wurzelbacher, who became a central figure in McCain’s campaign after Wurzelbacher’s chance encounter with Obama outside Toledo, when he publicly criticized Obama’s comment that it was best to “spread the wealth around.”

“This business of, quote, ‘spreading the wealth around, spreading your income around’ -- that’s been tried before by the far-left liberals; that’s been tried in other countries; we’re not going to do that in America,” McCain told an audience of hundreds at an afternoon outdoor rally in Elyria, Ohio.

Obama, meanwhile, moved to cement his edge over McCain in states that voted Republican four years ago. On a daylong sprint from Florida to Virginia and Missouri, the Democratic nominee argued that McCain shared Bush’s economic agenda and that the country needed a change in direction.

A day after his first joint appearance with former President Bill Clinton, Obama told a crowd in Sarasota that his own economic plans would produce results similar to those achieved under Clinton, who presided over eight years of economic prosperity.

“John McCain’s got an economic plan that’s similar to George Bush’s,” Obama told more than 13,000 supporters at the Cincinnati Reds’ spring-training ballpark. “So all you have to do is just look and see what works and what doesn’t.”

Obama’s stop at the ballpark on the Gulf Coast wrapped up a two-day visit to the closely divided state that swung the presidency to George W. Bush in the ballot-recount battle of 2000.

The trip’s showcase event was the rally with Clinton late Wednesday night near Orlando. And former Vice President Al Gore, who lost the 2000 election to Bush, will campaign for Obama in West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale today.

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Polls suggest that Obama holds a slight lead over his GOP rival in Florida and other key battleground states, and Democrats have dominated early voting across the nation. But Obama cautioned supporters against overconfidence. “Don’t believe this election’s over,” he told the flag-waving crowd in Sarasota. “Don’t believe it for a minute.”

In that spirit, Obama has put a trip to Iowa -- where polls show him well ahead of McCain -- on his crammed schedule for the campaign’s final stretch. He will stop in Des Moines today before a trick-or-treat outing with his two children in the family’s hometown of Chicago.

He could switch travel plans on short notice, but Obama expects to campaign only in states that Bush won in the last presidential election. Among them are Virginia, Missouri, Nevada, Colorado, Indiana and Ohio.

The Illinois senator is emphasizing Virginia and Missouri. His stop Thursday afternoon in Virginia Beach came just two days after he campaigned nearby in Norfolk. And Obama will follow up on his Thursday night stop in Columbia, Mo., with a visit Saturday to Springfield, Mo., in the heart of that state’s heavily Republican and rural southern region.

The modest crowds that met McCain on Thursday in Ohio -- a state with 20 electoral votes crucial to his strategy -- illustrated his struggle to inspire supporters as fervently as Obama has. Obama is leading in Ohio polls by an average of 6 percentage points, according to a compilation of polls by Real Clear Politics.

“We’re going to carry Ohio and we’re going to win the presidency, and we need you out there working every single moment for the next five days,” McCain said at his first rally, in Defiance, Ohio.

The highlight of McCain’s day was a raucous end-of-the-day rally with Wurzelbacher in Mentor, Ohio, attended by nearly 5,000 people, where he introduced Wurzelbacher as his “role model.”

Wurzelbacher, who had failed to show at the first rally, told the Mentor crowd that he wasn’t used to speaking publicly, but he was treated as a full-blown celebrity, with repeated chants of “Joe the Plumber” punctuated by the pounding of thunder sticks.

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And though his initial comments sounded more like a plea for voters to “get the facts” than an endorsement of McCain, he offered full-throated support for the Arizona senator at the last stop.

“I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines; this election is way too important,” Wurzelbacher said in Mentor. “Get out and vote, and as far as my vote, it’s going to be for a real American -- John McCain.”

In Erie, Pa., Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin urged voters not to let economic fears overshadow international threats.

“In times of economic worry and hardship, the crises we’re in right now, sometimes it’s tempting to put those concerns aside on election day -- national security issues,” she told 7,500 supporters at a rally. “We don’t have that luxury.”

She also pressed the Republican ticket’s argument that Obama was untested.

“A man can be admirable in many ways and quite promising, and still not be quite ready for the most important and demanding job in the world,” said Palin, the Alaska governor whose own inexperience in national and world affairs has caused trouble for McCain.

“Rousing speeches can fill a stadium, but they cannot keep our country safe,” she said. “For a season, a man can inspire with his words. For a lifetime, John McCain has inspired with his deeds.”

McCain will return to Pennsylvania on Saturday for a rally in Perkasie.

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Seema Mehta in Pennsylvania contributed to this report.


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