Obama, McCain duel over economy in key states

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The two major party presidential candidates, pressing closing arguments Thursday in the run-up to the Nov. 4 election, seized on separate economic reports — one on grim economy conditions and one on huge oil company profits — to argue their case for winning the White House.

Barack Obama, stumping in Florida for the second straight day, said the Commerce Department's report that the gross domestic product shrank at a 0.3% annual rate in the last quarter was "a direct result of the Bush administration's trickle down, Wall Street first, Main Street last policies that John McCain has embraced for the last eight years and plans to continue for the next four."

Speaking to a standing-room only crowd of about 13,000 at a Sarasota baseball field, Obama cast his Republican rival as a passenger in a car waiting to take the wheel from President Bush.

"After nine straight months of job losses, the largest drop in home values on record, wages lower than they've been in a decade, why would we keep driving down this dead-end street?" Obama asked.

The Illinois senator, who is leading in national polls, also planned to campaign in Virginia and Missouri.

McCain began a two-day bus tour of Ohio, a Midwest state critical to his hopes of amassing 270 electoral votes to win the presidency.

The Arizona senator seized on a report from ExxonMobil that it had earned $14.83 billion in the third quarter, the largest profit report in the nation's history.

In an effort to draw a distinction with Obama, McCain said the Democrat's rhetoric masks his votes backing new tax breaks for the oil industry.

"Senator Obama voted $4 billions in corporate giveaways to the oil companies," said McCain, who noted that he had voted against it. "When I'm president, we're not going to let that happen," he said.

McCain, though he did not mention it specifically, was likely referring to Obama's 2005 vote on a Republican-crafted energy bill dubbed by some critics as the "Bush-Cheney energy bill." McCain voted against the legislation.

The measure included nearly $3 billion in tax breaks for the oil and natural gas industry including some that would benefit the largest oil producers such as ExxonMobil. It also had $11.4 billion in tax incentives for alternative energy and efficiency programs, cited by Obama as his reason for supporting the legislation.

At his first rally in Ohio, McCain encountered an awkward moment when he introduced "Joe the Plumber," an Ohio worker who confronted Obama on taxes earlier this month. The plumber, who has become a staple of McCain's stump speech ever since, turned out not to be at the rally, but McCain just shrugged and said, "We're all Joe the plumber."

The real plumber, Joe Wurzelbacher of Toledo, has endorsed McCain since challenging Obama's tax policies, and aides said he could appear with the candidate later in the Ohio swing. He has already appeared with McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

In other developments:

• The North Carolina Board of Elections voted unanimously to order all 100 counties to keep their early voting sites open until 5 p.m. instead of 1 p.m. unless local officials decide it's unnecessary.

The decision came amid high turnout and long lines across the state since early voting began two weeks ago.

•An appeals court in Michigan upheld a federal court order that the state must not throw registered voters off the rolls, even if their voter ID cards were returned as undeliverable.

The case involves 5,500 people who have registered since January 2006, just a fraction of the 7.47 million state voters.

Suspending the injunction "would cause confusion, leaving recently registered voters who have not received their original voter ID cards unsure of their status and of what they need to do in order to exercise their right to vote," the court said.

• In an interview on ABC's Good Morning America, Palin was asked if she was suggesting in any of her criticism of Obama that the Illinois senator is un-American. Palin relied: "No, not at all. Not calling him un-American." She added, "I am sure that Sen. Obama cares as much for this country as McCain does."

Palin has accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists," a reference to his association with a one-time radical from the 1960s.

•Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, acknowledged that his candidate was behind in the polls, but said the Arizona senator is "coming back" among suburban men and among Hispanics, particularly in Nevada, New Mexico and states in the upper Midwest. "There's no question there's a closing in this campaign," Davis told reporters.

"We're still fighting, we're still behind, we still think we've got plenty of time to close the gap enough to make this election competitive and win it," he said.

•David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, expressed cautious optimism about the prospects for his candidate. "We think we have lot more pathways, credible pathways to winning the presidency next Tuesday than McCain has," he told MSNBC.

In particular, he said the Sunshine state is critical for the Republican.

"If McCain were to lose Florida, he has zero chance to win the presidency," Plouffe said.

Contributing: Kathy Kiely in Sarasota, Fla.; Douglas Stanglin in McLean, Va.; The Associated Press