McCain Hopes Economic Plan Closes Gap In Polls

The presidential election is three weeks away. According to polls, Democrat Barack Obama has a double-digit lead over Republican John McCain. The economy has become the top issue. McCain is expected to announce his economic plan Tuesday in Pennsylvania.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And here in the U.S., the economic turbulence has become the dominant issue in the presidential election which is just three weeks away. According to the polls, Democratic candidate Barack Obama is opening up a lead over Republican John McCain. We're joined now by NPR news analyst Juan Williams to talk to about how the economy is affecting the presidential campaign. Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, the economic crisis is cited as the main reason Senator John McCain has fallen behind in the polls. There are reports that McCain is ready to unveil a new economic plan. What are you hearing?

WILLIAMS: Well, what I'm hearing, Renee, is that about 300 billion of that $750 billion bailout plan, under McCain's new idea it would be used to renegotiate home mortgages, to allow people to stay in their homes and limit the damage done through foreclosures. Also, he wants to go after a job stimulus plan to get more people back to work and lower this unemployment rate, as well as to reduce capital gains taxes going forward for '09 and '10, eliminate unemployment benefit taxes, lower taxes on seniors who tap into their own retirement accounts. It's all meant to suggest that John McCain has a plan to help people, individuals, as opposed to just help those on Wall Street.

MONTAGNE: Well, this plan that he floated, a major proposal about buying up mortgages - you know, has the campaign settled on a message? Because this is, in a sense, what you're saying, a new plan.

WILLIAMS: It is a new plan, and you know what, they haven't settled on a message until now. And what they want to do is lay this out, run it out for the remaining weeks of the campaign. They feel it was a mistake, going back, to have suspended the campaign going into the negotiations over the bailout bill. That didn't work out to their advantage. Then the economic crisis hit hard. That hasn't helped them.

So now the language the campaign is using is it's time to reset to focus on this new plan that McCain is putting forward. They'll continue to try to paint Senator Obama as risky on taxes and inexperienced on foreign policy. But the idea is to really say, here is John McCain's plan, and here's why you can trust John McCain. That's their hope at this point.

MONTAGNE: Let's turn to a different aspect of the McCain campaign. There's a change of tone in the way that Sarah Palin has been speaking. His vice presidential candidate, of course, has been speaking on the campaign trail this week. Here she is talking about the anger she sees.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska; Republican Vice Presidential Candidate): Anger about the arrogance of the Washington elite and anger about voter fraud.

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

Governor PALIN: America. America, let John McCain turn that anger into action.

(Soundbite of crowd ovation)

MONTAGNE: Now, the change here is that she's focusing on her own candidate, John McCain. Just a few days ago, she was talking much more about Barack Obama. One of the things she was saying was that he pals around with terrorists. Why the change?

WILLIAMS: Well, Palin's attacks clearly weren't working to attract the undecided and independent voters that - and especially female suburban white voters that the McCain campaign needs to close the gap with Senator Obama. In addition, Senator McCain was uncomfortable with some of these attacks and was getting criticized because of the frenzied attitude and sometimes vicious language coming out of the crowds. Now, Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska - and as you pointed out, the vice presidential nominee - will still go around and say that Obama pals around with terrorists, like William Ayers, the man out of Chicago, the former Weather Underground activist. But the sentiment is - especially coming from the Palin part of the McCain campaign - is that she has done it and that she wants to now get onboard with this new tone, this reset. And so less about Obama as risky, and more about McCain as reliable. So I think that's what you're going to see from Palin going forward.

MONTAGNE: Just very quickly. We've talked these last moments about the McCain campaign and its challenges. What does Barack Obama have to do, or avoid doing, in the home stretch?

WILLIAMS: Well, he's got to remain steady. No missteps, no statements that cause people to have a sense of alarm or play into McCain's idea that he's risky. You know, McCain's going after one of every five white voters, about 15 percent of the electorate that's open to be persuaded at this point. He's hoping to get a 10 percent swing at best, and if he does that - you know, a third shift, I should say. And then it would lead to a 10 percent swing that could close the gap with Barack Obama.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

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