ELYRIA, Ohio -- Even the name of the place where John McCain started the day suited his mood and his closing message.
His opening rally Thursday was in a town called Defiance, where he launched a two-day bus tour that was to take him across Ohio — a state every successful Republican presidential nominee has carried, and one he needs to win.
In an interview with USA TODAY, McCain was defiant toward the polls that show him trailing Democrat Barack Obama, combative about a new government report that shows a contracting economy, dismissive of talk of friction with running mate Sarah Palin and focused on pressing his case in the campaign's final days.
A race that began with McCain emphasizing his credentials on national security in a dangerous world is, at its end, all about the economy. Amid broad dissatisfaction with the Republican White House and the meltdown on Wall Street, the economy's troubles have helped to boost Obama in the polls. Now, hours before Election Day, McCain is using the support of an Ohio plumber to try to connect with Americans who feel pressed by hard times.
McCain predicted his spotlight on "Joe the Plumber" — Joe Wurzelbacher, who gained fame for questioning Obama about whether the Democrat's tax-cut plan would help small businesses — will wind up being a turning point that convinced voters of the perils of backing Obama.
"What Joe the Plumber did was he showed America exactly what Sen. Obama's plans mean to America, which would be sending our economy into a deeper recession and harm our economy," McCain said. "So when people saw Joe the Plumber ask the question, and the answer that Sen. Obama gave him." McCain snapped his finger. "The light went on."
Wurzelbacher, who lives near Toledo in Holland, Ohio, campaigned with McCain on Thursday. He sat in a front compartment of the campaign bus while the candidate sat at the back, flanked by wife Cindy and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a regular traveling companion. McCain snacked on a pepperoni-and-onion pizza as he fielded questions, at times energetically pumping his arm in the air to make a point.
In Elyria, the bus turned a corner and he spotted Obama supporters waving placards. "There we go," McCain said, reading one of them aloud: "Working families for Obama."
"Well, that's too bad," McCain said.
Charting a narrow path
The campaign has stretched for nearly 18 months since McCain announced his candidacy with a speech in Portsmouth, N.H. Now his second bid for the White House has come down to campaigning in states that President Bush won four years ago, and where McCain now is trying to prevent Obama victories.
The Arizona senator is scheduled to campaign in Ohio again today and in Virginia on Saturday; he trails in both states in the latest statewide polls. He probably has to carry both states and Florida to win the necessary 270 electoral votes.
McCain pulled off one of the great political comebacks in modern American history this year by clinching the Republican nomination after his campaign imploded, broke and disorganized. Now he's vowing to surprise naysayers again.
"This is a tough election for us and a tough campaign, but we've come back every single time," he said. So he will come back again?
"Once more into the breach, dear friends."
His uphill task was made more difficult with the release of government statistics that show the economy contracting in the third quarter of the year, presumably a sign that a recession officially has begun. (The formal definition of a recession is back-to-back quarters of negative growth.)
Voters typically hold the party that controls the White House to account when the economy is bad. For more than a century, the incumbent party has lost the White House in every election when the economy was in a recession or had just pulled out of one — a factor in Republican defeats in 1960 and 1992 and a Democratic defeat in 1980.
Not so this time, McCain asserted.
"I think people understand who's been in the majority (in Congress) the last two years — that's the Democrats," he said. "I think people are increasingly worried of the liberal left controlling the House and the Senate and the presidency. And I think they're beginning to get it that Sen. Obama means worse economic conditions."
When will folks feel better about the economy?
"As soon as I'm elected," McCain declared, showing a flash of humor. "As soon as I'm elected, trust and confidence will begin to return."
In his comments and his stump speeches, McCain is now hammering familiar arguments and core issues: Taxes. Federal spending. National security. Experience.
"I certainly have a long résumé of being involved in America's economy; Sen. Obama has zero," McCain said, citing his time as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees a broad part of the economy. Obama "has no record, no record of being involved in a major economic issue."
Despite his harsh criticism of his rival, McCain said Obama would still have "a role to play in America's future" if the Democrat loses the election, though not necessarily in a McCain administration. "But I certainly would want to work with him in a bipartisan fashion to help this country in these difficult economic times," McCain said.
If he wins, McCain said he "absolutely" would be willing to attend the international economic summit President Bush plans to convene Nov. 15, assuming Bush thought that would be helpful.
'She's ignited people'
McCain dismissed as "total nonsense" reports of conflicts between his camp and Palin.
"She's ignited people all over the country," he said. "Every place I go, with her or without her, her name is mentioned and there is a degree of excitement that I have not seen in American politics — and I have been involved in a lot of campaigns."
He acknowledged that some question the capability of the first-term Alaska governor to be president, if that were necessary.
"I understand and have heard all the criticism, particularly those that reside inside the Georgetown cocktail-party circuit," he said. "But I've also seen the effect that she has on average citizens, and it's been remarkable."
Contributing: Susan Page in Washington