(CBS/AP) Republican John McCain pledged to fight for a new direction for the country in an energetic new campaign stump speech Monday that sought to distance him from the economic policies of President Bush.
"We cannot spend the next four years as we have spent much of the last eight: waiting for our luck to change," McCain said while campaigning with running mate Sarah Palin in this once reliably Republican state that has become a battleground this year. "The hour is late; our troubles are getting worse; our enemies watch. We have to act immediately. We have to change direction now."
The Arizona senator insisted he understood Americans' concerns about the deepening financial crisis, even as fears about the meltdown have moved voters firmly in Democrat Barack Obama's
The repudiation of the Republican incumbent's economic policies came as McCain has struggled to find a message that would reverse his sagging poll results nationally and in some battleground states. Yet, McCain echoed a line from President George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, about Democrats "measuring the drapes" that proved ineffectual for the GOP in 1992 and 2006.
"Sen. Obama is measuring the drapes, and planning with Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and Sen. (Harry) Reid to raise taxes, increase spending, take away your right to vote by secret ballot in labor elections, and concede defeat in Iraq," McCain said, targeting the prospect of one-party government with references to the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush told a Houston rally when he went to the Oval Office he expected to find Democratic candidate Bill Clinton "there measuring the drapes. Put those drapes on hold, it's going to be curtain time." Clinton unseated Bush.
In October 2006, President Bush said congressional Democrats "were measuring the drapes" and planning to take control of Congress. A month later, Democrats won the House and Senate.
McCain acknowledged Obama's lead in the polls. "The national media has written us off," McCain added. "But they forgot to let you decide."
"What America needs in this hour is a fighter," he said, adding that he knew Americans were worried about the direction of the country.
"I know what hopelessness feels like. It's an enemy who defeats your will. I felt those things once before. I will never let them in again," McCain said, a clear reference to his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "I'm an American. And I choose to fight."
"In the face of growing unease in the Republican Party about his campaign’s response to the economic crisis, McCain used his speech today to try and recast his message," said CBSNews.com senior political editor Vaughn Ververs. "Hewing to his conservative economic platform of lower-taxes, free trade and fiscal discipline, McCain resurrected his call from the Republican convention, urging his supporters to 'fight' on and once again raising questions about Barack Obama's experience. But those arguments haven't worked so far, it's uncertain that finding a new way to frame them will make any difference."
He renewed his pledge to freeze federal spending, renegotiate distressed mortgages to help middle class homeowners, and cut taxes. He also vowed to bring more experienced leadership to the White House, because "the next president won't have time to get used to the office."
McCain compared Obama to Herbert Hoover, the Republican who was president when the stock market crashed in 1929 triggering the Depression.
"The last president to raise taxes and restrict trade in a bad economy as Sen. Obama proposes was Herbert Hoover. That didn't turn out too well," McCain said. "They say those who don't learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Well, my friends, I know my history lessons, and I sure won't make the mistakes Sen. Obama will."
In fact, Obama's tax plan calls for reductions for Americans making less than $200,000 a year.
McCain's retooled pitch comes as Republican campaign veterans say he needs to do more than just attack Obama in an economic environment that favors Democrats.
Obama leads in enough states to be within reach of the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory while McCain is being forced to defend Republican turf where polls show the race close. That's partly because of Obama's well-funded onslaught of TV ads and extensive network of field troops registering and canvassing voters; McCain trails on both fronts.
It was a measure of McCain's troubles that he was campaigning Monday, just three weeks before the election, in Virginia and later in North Carolina, both normally solid for the GOP nominee but in play this year. (Read more campaign news in Virginia from CBS News and around the Web.)
And Democrats were eyeing GOP-leaning West Virginia as a possible place to eek out a victory; Obama's TV ads meant for Ohio have bled into the state and there are indications that economic fears may be starting to tilt the state toward the Democrats. Palin landed in West Virginia over the weekend before traveling to campaign in Ohio.
Introducing McCain to the Virginia crowd, Palin sought to temper the sometimes volatile outbursts from supporters against Obama that marked the ticket's rallies last week.
The Alaska governor never mentioned the Illinois senator by name or his connections to 1960s-era radical Bill Ayers, a reference she made repeatedly last week that incited the crowds.
When supporters started chanting "No-Bama, No-Bama," Palin jumped in to say voter anger was driven by economic woes.
"There's anger about the insider dealing of lobbyists. Anger about the greed on Wall Street. Anger about the arrogance of the Washington elite," she said.
McCain and Obama will debate Wednesday at Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y. CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer will moderate the 90-minute forum.
Still, McCain promised to run a "respectful" campaign in the weeks to come.
"I respect Senator Obama, we will conduct a respectful race and be sure everyone else does too. But there are stark difference between us," McCain said.
On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a top adviser to McCain, said the presidential candidate was considering a reduction in taxes on investments, including a possible cut in the capital gains tax. But campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said McCain would not announce any specific proposals during campaign stops Monday in Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. He added, "We will likely have further proposals this week as economic news and conditions change."
Graham, on CBS News' Face the Nation said the GOP candidate was considering policy proposals that would cut taxes on investments.
"I think it goes along the lines of now's the time to lower tax rates for investors, capital gains tax, dividend tax rates, to make sure that we can get the economy jump-started," Graham said. "It will be a very comprehensive approach to jump-start the economy by allowing capital to be formed easier in America by lowering taxes."
McCain already has laid out proposals to address the crisis, including a $300 billion plan for the federal government to buy distressed mortgages and renegotiate them at a reduced price.
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