INDIANAPOLIS — With the world's most powerful job at stake, John McCain and Barack Obama focused intensely Thursday on the working class as they traded barbs over who could better restore jobs and protect paychecks.
McCain kicked off a "Joe the Plumber" bus tour in Florida with new warnings that Obama would raise taxes on small businesses and choke off the nation's engine of job growth.
"Whether it's Joe the Plumber in Ohio or Joe here," McCain said in Ormond Beach, Fla., "we shouldn't be taxing our small business more, as Senator Obama wants to do. We need to be helping them expand their businesses and create jobs."
"Socialist," came a shouted response from someone in the audience.
Obama said he'd raise taxes on individuals earning more than $200,000 and families making more than $250,000, while cutting taxes for 95 percent of Americans. McCain said he wouldn't raise anyone's income tax.
Obama made his own pitch in downtown Indianapolis, introduced by a woman laid off when her factory moved to Mexico and fearful that her husband will soon lose his factory job as well.
"John McCain believes those companies deserve tax breaks," Andrea Mooney said to boos from an outdoor audience of 35,000. "We need a president who understands. . . . We know Barack Obama is the right candidate."
"It's time," Obama then said, "to turn the page on eight years of economic policies that put Wall Street before Main Street but ended up hurting both.
"We need policies that grow our economy from the bottom-up, so that every American, everywhere, has the chance to get ahead. Not just the person who owns the factory, but the men and women who work on its floor."
The candidates' cross-country jabs came as new Quinnipiac polls in three battleground states showed McCain gaining in Florida but Obama still ahead there, while Obama held double-digit leads in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"As we enter the home stretch, Senator Obama is winning voter groups that no Democrat has carried in more than four decades," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Polling Institute at Quinnipiac University. "If these numbers hold up, he could win the biggest Democratic landslide since Lyndon Johnson in 1964."
Both candidates cited a new jobs report Thursday showing 478,000 people applying for unemployment benefits last week to underscore their own credentials.
Obama said he'd extend unemployment benefits, suspend taxes on them, and spur job creation with emergency loans and tax credits for small businesses. "John McCain has no jobs plan," he said.
McCain said he'd stop mortgage foreclosures and that Obama's budget proposals would make matters worse, not better. "Barack Obama's only answer is to double-down on the Bush administration's legacy of out-of-control spending, raise taxes on small businesses, impose mandates on employers and raise trade barriers," McCain said, "a time-proven recipe for turning tough economic times into terrible economic circumstances."
McCain seemed to sense he was scoring with his use of Obama's promise to raise taxes on those making more than $250,000, a policy Obama defended in a now famous talk with an Ohio man who said he hopes to someday buy his own plumbing business and feared those higher taxes.
Though Obama assured the man that he would actually cut taxes for most people like him who now make less than $200,000 — the average plumber's salary in 2007 was $47,350, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — fear of higher taxes resonated with some Floridians at McCain events Thursday.
Howard Maines of Panama City, for example, owns two small businesses, and neither earns anywhere close to the amount that would trigger higher taxes under Obama's plan. Still, Maines is firmly for McCain.
"I have potential to make over $250,000," said the owner of photography and metal detector businesses. "And when I do it's because I worked hard for it, and I know under McCain I'd get some tax relief."
"Obama wants to take care of everyone else. We need to take care of ourselves," said Gretchen McKenzie, an Ormond Beach retiree.
Obama hoped to assuage workers' anxiety with his promise not only to cut their taxes, but to reward businesses that add jobs here and punish those that ship jobs overseas.
"Hopefully, he'll bring the economy around," said Johnny Rodriguez, a construction worker from Indianapolis who hasn't worked for a year as new housing starts have dried up.
"It started out good," he said. "I was working, making good money. Now, it's time for a change."
Janie Brown of Indianapolis said that both she and her husband are working, she as a Registered Nurse and he running a warehouse. But the economy is uncertain and prices are rising.
"It's not good here. People are having a tough time making ends meet," she said. "Obama may raise taxes. I'm willing to pay my taxes. But McCain wouldn't raise taxes on the wealthy."
From Indianapolis, Obama broke off from the campaign trail for two days, flying to Hawaii to visit his ailing grandmother.
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