BETHLEHEM, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - White House hopeful John McCain pitched a $300 billion (173.5 billion pound) plan to help struggling homeowners on Wednesday as he tried to erode an advantage held by Democratic rival Barack Obama on economic issues.
The day after a sometimes tense second presidential debate, the ailing economy again took centre stage in the White House contest.
Both candidates welcomed cuts in global interest rates, even though the reductions failed to stop the tumult on Wall Street.
Two snap polls judged Obama the winner of the Nashville, Tennessee, debate on Tuesday night. That suggested that McCain, a Republican, could be running out of chances to recast the November 4 race, which has been trending towards his Democratic opponent.
McCain offered more details on Wednesday on a plan he suggested in Nashville to have the government buy up troubled loans from people who have seen their home values fall below their debt. The loans would then be structured into more affordable mortgages.
“Under my orders as president, the secretary of the Treasury will carry out a home ownership resurgence plan,” McCain told a rally in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “The dream of owning a home should not be crushed under the weight of bad mortgages.”
The Arizona senator called the plan a “a critical first step our country must take to get through this time of crisis.”
The Obama campaign dismissed the idea as “more costly and out-of-touch than we ever imagined” and noted the Treasury already had authority under a $700 billion rescue plan approved by Congress to buy up distressed debt.
“John McCain wants the government to massively overpay for mortgages in a plan that would guarantee taxpayers lose money, and put them at risk of losing even more if home values don’t recover,” said Jason Furman, economic adviser to Obama.
Obama, an Illinois senator, has sought to portray McCain as an erratic leader in the financial crisis. Democrats sharply criticized McCain last month when he briefly suspended his campaign to help lawmakers negotiate the bailout package.
McCain’s critics said his move hurt, rather than helped, the negotiations.
“This is a time for resolve and steady leadership,” Obama told an outdoor rally at a mud-soaked fairgrounds in Indianapolis.
Obama also accused McCain of offering the policies of President George W. Bush “that led us into this mess in the first place.”
McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, said Obama’s efforts to tie McCain to Bush were “starting to wear pretty darn thin.”
“Last night Senator McCain talked about real and pragmatic solutions. Barack Obama talked about why he’d rather run against George Bush,” Palin, the Alaska governor, said as she appeared with McCain at the Bethlehem rally.
Polls show voters favour Obama on economic issues, giving him a lead between 4 and 9 percentage points in national surveys released in the past few days.
A Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll of likely voters released on Wednesday showed Obama with a 47 percent to 45 percent edge on McCain, down 1 point overnight and within the poll’s margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.
Other polls have shown a larger advantage for Obama, who has made gains nationally and in important battleground states during the economic crisis.
During the debate, the candidates showed only occasional flashes of the personal rancor that has marked their recent campaign-trail rhetoric.
Obama’s campaign took note of McCain’s reference to Obama during the debate as “that one,” but Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden said he did not believe McCain was being dismissive.
Biden, a Delaware senator, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that it suggested McCain was “ill-at-ease” with the attack strategy his campaign has undertaken.
Tuesday’s debate drew 63 million viewers, more than 10 million higher than the number for the first showdown between Obama and McCain on September 26, according to Nielsen Media Research.
The audience was still smaller than the nearly 70 million who tuned in for the clash between Palin and Biden last Thursday.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan in Indianapolis and John Whitesides in Nashville; Writing by Caren Bohan; Editing by David Alexander and Peter Cooney