With debate over, a return to the economy

OXFORD — Senators Barack Obama and John McCain left this college town Friday night and returned to a campaign that continues to be strapped to the nation’s financial crisis and Washington’s stalled attempt to solve it.

Despite a long and relatively deep debate on topics ranging from earmarks to the conflict in Ossetia, the campaign will quickly return this weekend to more fundamental questions about the economy, top advisors to both candidates said. Obama will head to North Carolina and Virginia to talk about job losses, advisors said, while McCain will return to Washington to try to redeem his efforts to reach agreement on a bailout deal.

“The economy is the preeminent issue,” said Obama’s communications director, Dan Pfeiffer. “If we went out and tried to talk about anything else, they’d probably riot at the event.”

In an election that increasingly appears to be dominated by the economy, perhaps more so than any other since Bill Clinton’s 1992 triumph, the two campaigns will seek in the coming days to define the economic debate on their own terms. The Obama campaign will continue to cast their candidate as the sole chance for change and to criticize what backers repeatedly called McCain’s “erratic” stance on the bailout, said chief strategist David Axelrod.

Republicans will seek to frame the issue less as a referendum on the decline during the Bush years and more over the choice between McCain and Obama.

That means getting a deal as soon as possible on the bailout and pivoting to a broader discussion of taxes and spending, two issues where the GOP traditionally fares better than on other economic policy questions.

But even some McCain allies concede that they start at a disadvantage and that GOP nominee must sharpen his focus.

“I do think the party and the Bush record is a drag and it has been,” said Trent Lott, the former Mississippi senator and early McCain supporter, alluding to the two-term president’s economic record.

“But what does that mean?” he continued. “Does that mean more taxes, more spending? Is that good?”

“I do think he needs to be a little more aggressive on the economy,” Lott said of his former Senate colleague.

Lindsey Graham, one of McCain’s closest Senate allies, laid out the next few days.

“I think John needs to say we’ve avoided chaos here, but we’ve still got problems,” Graham said, referring to the near-meltdown of the financial sector. “And do we raise taxes? It’s got to be about taxes and spending. If we can convince people, ‘now’s the worst possible time to raise taxes’ and ‘when I say I’ll cut taxes, I mean it,’ we’ll do well.”

For now, McCain is back in Washington. He’ll work in the capital to help fashion a final agreement on the Wall Street bailout with his colleagues.

Charlie Black, a top McCain adviser, said in the short-term their campaign message would consist of: “Let’s finish this rescue package on a bipartisan basis.”

Black said there would likely be a vote by Sunday.

If that turns out to be the case, McCain will then trek back to Ohio, a state he’s working hard to keep in the GOP column.

He’ll go there with a renewed sense of confidence.

After perhaps the rockiest two weeks of a campaign that has nearly run aground time and again over 18 months, McCain aides were hopeful that the candidate’s comfortable and at times forceful performance would help right the ship.

“I think that positive debate performance here, wrapping up the package in D.C. and then the message you have to take is, here is how we fix the economy going forward,” said Matt McDonald, a senior campaign adviser.

Obama’s aides, meanwhile, laid out a schedule Pfeiffer said would keep Obama on “electoral offense,” stumping in states President George W. Bush won in 2000. After visits to Virginia and North Carolina, and a defensive stop in Michigan, Obama will head west to a cluster of states centered on New Mexico – where Obama is strong – and hotly-contested Colorado, Pfeiffer said.

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson said he thought his state was slipping out of McCain’s grasp.

“Republicans have damaged McCain’s prospects with Hispanic voters, even though McCain has a good record on immigration,” he said, predicting that McCain would slip to a dangerous 35% of the Hispanic vote, which is a key constituency in the West.

And Richardson stressed Obama’s continuing criticism of McCain: That his attempts to insert himself into bailout negotiations “reveals that he's ready to gamble. The American people want their president to be steady and calm,” he said.

Both campaigns said they would pick favorite moments from the debate to highlight in the days to come. McDonald said McCain would continue to criticize Obama for voting against a bill that included funding for troops. Axelrod said McCain’s focus on federal budget issues, rather than bread and butter – and his failure to mention the words “middle class” during the debate— would dog him.

“He just doesn’t get what’s going on with the middle class,” Axelrod said.

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