June 9, 2008 -- Just as Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama break from the starting gate in their race for the White House, zooming oil prices and unemployment rates are highlighting the economy as the nation's No. 1 campaign issue.
Obama, who has eliminated Sen. Hillary Clinton as his last challenger for the Democratic nomination, today launched an 11-day campaign tour, starting in Raleigh, N.C., with a bareknuckle attack on his Republican rival.
Obama ticked off a litany of economic woes: last week's gas price spike, a jump in unemployment figures, 320,000 U.S. jobs lost since January, along with the rising cost of food, health care and tuition.
He complimented McCain as a war hero who has shown some independence from President Bush on certain issues, but the economy is not one of those issues, Obama said.
"The centerpiece of his economic plan amounts to a full-throated endorsement of George Bush's policies," Obama declared, citing his support of Bush's tax cuts -- cuts that he notes McCain once opposed.
Obama ridiculed as "outrageous" McCain's support for corporate tax relief which he said would give $1.2 billion in tax cuts to Exxon/Mobile, "a company that just recorded the highest profits in history."
And the Democratic presidential candidate highlighted McCain's reluctance to help homeowners threatened by foreclosure, saying, "McCain wants to turn Bush's policy of 'too little, too late' into a policy of 'even less, even later.'"
Obama's own proposals include a second round of rebate checks that would amount to $50 billion "to help those who've been hit hardest by this economic downturn."
Obama will continue his "Change That Works For You" tour in Missouri Tuesday and Iowa the next day.
North Carolina, which hasn't gone Democratic since Jimmy Carter won it in 1976, and Missouri are expected to be contested by Obama and McCain, and could be key battlegrounds for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
Obama's economy tour will continue through the perennial battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
McCain will be attending to the economics of his own campaign today, fundraising among Republicans in Virginia and Washington — two more potential battleground states.
He will be campaigning this week in contested states like New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. He will also discuss his economic policies in Washington conference by the Nation Federation of Independent Business.
The economy has gained prominence as gas prices rocked already shell-shocked motorists by leaping to more than $4 a gallon, with prices as high as $4.30 in places like California and Connecticut. Experts warned gas prices could hit $4.50 by July 4.
Unemployment has also spiked along with gas prices, prompting the stock market to dip.
Both candidates will try to depict the other as backing failed economic policies of the past. Obama likes to accuse McCain of running for Bush's third term, while McCain accuses Obama of wanting "to go back to the failed policies of the 60s and 70s."
So far, Obama appears to have an edge in the economic argument, bolstered in part by McCain's candor on the issue when he said during the Republican primary, "I am not an expert on Wall Street. I am not an expert on this stuff."
A May ABC News poll asking people whom they trust to handle the economy found voters favoring Obama by 48 percent to McCain's 38 percent.
McCain's economic proposals include cutting the corporate tax rate, giving Americans a $5,000 tax credit for health insurance and cutting pork out of the federal budget.
Obama wants to push for expanded access to health insurance, repeal of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and a 10 percent mortgage credit.
"I think the weakness John McCain has is that he has a Republican sign on his back and he has supported the president's policies mostly over the last eight years and that's a huge problem he has," said ABC News political analyst Matthew Dowd.
That may may be why McCain domestic policy adviser Doug Holtz-Eakin recently fired away at President George W. Bush instead of Obama.
"The only thing he shares in common with President Bush is he understanding of good tax policy," Holtz-Eakin said on Bloomberg television. "Sadly, it seems that's all President Bush understood on the economy."