The Arizona senator insisted he understood Americans' concerns about the deepening financial crisis, even as fears about the meltdown have moved voters firmly in Democrat Barack Obama's direction in recent weeks.
The repudiation of the Republican incumbent's economic policies came as McCain has struggled to find a message that would reverse his sagging poll results nationally and in some battleground states. Yet, McCain echoed a line from President George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, about Democrats "measuring the drapes" that proved ineffectual for the GOP in 1992 and 2006.
"Sen. Obama is measuring the drapes, and planning with Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and Sen. (Harry) Reid to raise taxes, increase spending, take away your right to vote by secret ballot in labor elections, and concede defeat in Iraq," McCain said, targeting the prospect of one-party government with references to the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush told a Houston rally when he went to the Oval Office he expected to find Democratic candidate Bill Clinton "there measuring the drapes. Put those drapes on hold, it's going to be curtain time." Clinton unseated Bush.
In October 2006, President George W. Bush said congressional Democrats "were measuring the drapes" and planning to take control of Congress. A month later, Democrats won the House and Senate.
McCain acknowledged Obama's lead in the polls. "The national media has written us off," McCain added. "But they forgot to let you decide."
"What America needs in this hour is a fighter," he said, adding that he knew Americans were worried about the direction of the country.
"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," McCain said, a clear reference to his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "I'm an American. And I choose to fight."
He renewed his pledge to freeze federal spending, renegotiate distressed mortgages to help middle class homeowners, and cut taxes. He also vowed to bring more experienced leadership to the White House, because "the next president won't have time to get used to the office."
McCain compared Obama to Herbert Hoover, the Republican who was president when the stock market crashed in 1929 triggering the Depression.
"The last president to raise taxes and restrict trade in a bad economy as Sen. Obama proposes was Herbert Hoover. That didn't turn out too well," McCain said. "They say those who don't learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Well, my friends, I know my history lessons, and I sure won't make the mistakes Sen. Obama will."
In fact, Obama's tax plan calls for reductions for Americans making less than $200,000 a year.
McCain's retooled pitch comes as Republican campaign veterans say he needs to do more than just attack Obama in an economic environment that favors Democrats.
Obama leads in enough states to be within reach of the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory while McCain is being forced to defend Republican turf where polls show the race close. That's partly because of Obama's well-funded onslaught of TV ads and extensive network of field troops registering and canvassing voters; McCain trails on both fronts.
It was a measure of McCain's troubles that he was campaigning Monday, just three weeks before the election, in Virginia and later in North Carolina, both normally solid for the GOP nominee but in play this year.
Virginia hasn't voted for a Democratic president since 1964, North Carolina since 1976.
McCain's visit to North Carolina, where he again used his new stump speech, was his first in six months, while Obama has spent considerable time and resources in the state. President Bush twice won North Carolina by double-digit margins.
The state's May primary was expected to be an afterthought, but Obama's extended race with Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination helped drive a boom in Democratic voter registrations. Since Jan. 1, new voter registrations in North Carolina have favored Democrats nearly 4-to-1.
Introducing McCain to the Virginia crowd, Palin sought to temper the sometimes volatile outbursts from supporters against Obama that marked the ticket's rallies last week.
The Alaska governor never mentioned the Illinois senator by name or his connections to 1960s-era radical Bill Ayers, a reference she made repeatedly last week that incited the crowds.
When supporters started chanting "No-Bama, No-Bama," Palin jumped in to say voter anger was driven by economic woes. "There's anger about the insider dealing of lobbyists. Anger about the greed on Wall Street. Anger about the arrogance of the Washington elite," she said.