John McCain spent Saturday in Virginia and North Carolina, two states that Republicans are used to winning and that his campaign can ill afford to lose.
"It's great to be here in the Commonwealth of Virginia. This is a must-win state," McCain told the cheering crowd. And in North Carolina: "We have to win the state of North Carolina, and I'm counting on you to do it."
Polls show McCain is trailing Barack Obama in Virginia and North Carolina. Saturday, a McCain adviser blamed the Virginia gap on Democrats moving into the northern suburbs of Washington D.C. She predicted McCain would still do well in what she called "the real Virginia."
In North Carolina on Saturday, McCain told several thousand supporters he's encouraged by the enthusiasm of recent campaign rallies. A lot of that enthusiasm is focused on "Joe the Plumber."
"He's the only person to get a real answer out of Sen. Obama about his plans for this country," McCain said to applause. Last weekend, Ohio plumber Joe Wurzelbacher asked Obama about his plan to raise taxes on businesses and families making more than a quarter-million dollars a year.
"Obama replied, "Right now, everybody's so pinched that business is bad for everybody, and I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody." McCain has been ridiculing that at campaign stops ever since.
"Barack Obama's plan to raise taxes on some in order to give checks to others — it isn't a tax cut," McCain said, "It's just another government giveaway."
According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, 80 percent of Americans would have more after-tax income under Obama's plan, while the wealthiest 20 percent would have more under McCain's policy. McCain complains that some of those who would benefit from Obama's proposal make too little to pay any income tax now, even thought they are subject to payroll taxes.
"Since you can't reduce taxes on those who pay zero, the government will write them all checks called a tax credit, and the Treasury will have to cover those checks by taxing other people, including a lot of folks just like Joe," McCain told the crowd.
In fact, the real Joe the Plumber would almost certainly get a tax break under Obama's plan. The Illinois senator has promised not to raise taxes on businesses or families making less than $250,000 a year — or $200,000 for individuals. But a lot of people attending McCain's rallies say they simply don't believe that.
"That's bull. That's bull. It's all bull," said David Meacham, owner of a small trucking company. "I've never seen a Democrat who wouldn't raise taxes. So I don't believe that at all."
Meacham's daughter Leah held a hand-painted sign provided by the campaign. It read, "Joe the Plumber is the Heart and Soul of North Carolina."
"That means there's a whole bunch of us Joe the Plumbers out," Meacham said. "And don't take our money. Don't redistribute the wealth. Let us keep our money, and we'll figure out what we want to do with it."
Joe the Plumber has become a useful shorthand for McCain's critique of Obama's tax plan, much as "Drill Baby Drill" helped summarize his energy policy.
On Friday, McCain actually spoke by telephone with Joe the Plumber for the first time, and Sunday he'll be campaigning in Wurzelbacher's home state of Ohio.