Wednesday night's debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., is slated to focus entirely on the economy and domestic policy. The candidates will be seated at a table with moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS.
With the economic crisis fueling public unease, Obama has built leads nationally and in key states as the turmoil has returned the nation's focus to the policies of the unpopular President Bush. The burden now is on McCain to try to reverse his slide.
To that end, the Arizona senator took a new approach this week, positioning himself as a fighter for the American middle class and easing off his most direct attacks on Obama, an Illinois senator. McCain also took pains to separate himself from Bush.
"We cannot spend the next four years as we have spent much of the last eight: waiting for our luck to change. ... As president I intend to act, quickly and decisively," McCain said Tuesday in battleground Pennsylvania.
He announced a $52.5 billion economic plan Tuesday that calls for halving the tax rate on capital gains and reducing the tax on withdrawals from retirement accounts, among other measures. A day earlier, Obama unveiled a $60 billion proposal that includes an extension of unemployment benefits, a 90-day freeze on home foreclosures, penalty-free withdrawals from retirement funds and a $3,000 tax credit for each new job.
Both candidates call for doing away with the tax on unemployment benefits.
McCain has suggested that he is likely to bring up Obama's links to William Ayers, a radical during the Vietnam War era. Ayers was a member of the violent Weather Underground group but later became a university professor in Chicago and an expert on education. He and Obama both worked with some of the same charity foundations in Chicago, and Ayers hosted a reception for Obama when he first ran for the Illinois state Senate.
"We're always prepared for him to be hyperaggressive in his attacks," Obama campaign aide Robert Gibbs said of McCain. "I just think that doesn't work in an environment where so many people are concerned about the issues in front of them, not scare tactics they don't see as helping to pay the bills."
He said Obama will try to project an aura of calm leadership during the debate, which Gibbs said he achieved in two previous debates with McCain.
Obama's campaign also has taken some shots at McCain, increasingly labeling him "erratic" and "lurching" for solutions to the economic crisis. The words suggest unsteadiness by the four-term senator, who is 72.
Polls conducted after the earlier debates found that more people thought Obama had won both.
Meanwhile, McCain has had trouble finding support among swing voters. A recent Associated Press-GfK Poll showed independents about evenly divided between the two candidates, which is problematic for McCain because registered Democrats decisively outnumber registered Republicans this year.
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