The U.S. presidential campaign headed into the home stretch Thursday following the third and final debate between Republican candidate John McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama. VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has more from Washington.
McCain supporters and several independent analysts thought the Arizona senator turned in his strongest performance to date, challenging Senator Obama on his tax plan and raising questions about his character.
McCain sought to build momentum after the debate with a campaign rally in the northeastern state of Pennsylvania, where polls give Obama a lead.
McCain said the next president will have to immediately tackle some daunting economic and foreign policy issues, and that the country cannot afford a new president who requires on-the-job-training.
"And to that, he will need experience, courage, judgment and a bold plan of action to take this country in a new direction. We can't spend the next four years as we have spent the last eight, waiting for our luck to change. As I mentioned last night to Senator Obama, I am not George Bush and if he wanted to run against George Bush, he should have run four years ago," he said.
McCain is desperate to put some distance between himself and the Bush White House.
National polls indicate McCain has suffered in recent weeks because voters want the country to change direction and to a large extent blame President Bush for the current economic problems.
For his part, Senator Obama campaigned in the northeastern state of New Hampshire Thursday, another state where the polls show a close race between the two major party contenders.
Obama said McCain was on the attack during Wednesday's debate, but he said voters were more interested in hearing about solutions and policy proposals.
"Here is what Senator McCain doesn't seem to understand. With the economy in turmoil, with the American dream at risk, the American people don't want to hear politicians attack each other," he said. "You want to hear about how we are going to attack the challenges facing the middle class each and every day. I'm not running against George Bush. I'm running against all those policies of George Bush that you support, Senator McCain."
During the debate, McCain also continued to hammer away at Obama's tax plan, noting the objections of a plumber named Joe from Ohio who recently confronted the Illinois senator on the campaign trail. The plumber, Joe Wurzelbacher of Holland, Ohio, now seems destined to become a minor celebrity in the campaign.
The anti-tax theme was picked up Thursday during a campaign stop in Maine by McCain's vice presidential running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
"We want to cut taxes because we think like Joe or Jane the plumber thinks," she said.
Obama counters that he would cut taxes for 95 percent of working Americans, and that he would do away with the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.
Instant polls following Wednesday's debate gave the edge to Obama.
A CNN poll found that 58 percent thought Obama won the debate, while 31 percent sided with McCain. A CBS News poll gave the debate to Obama by a margin of 53 to 22 percent.
Across the country, voter reaction was mixed. These military veterans watched the debate in Washington State.
"They ought to stick more to the point and quit the nasty stuff," one voter said. "It totally confuses everybody."
"Whoever gets it has an ugly job," another voter said. "Whoever gets it, I bless them and wish them the best."
Experts question how much of an impact McCain's performance will have in blunting Obama's lead in the polls in the closing days of the campaign.
CBS analyst Vaughn Ververs says Obama continues to be the political beneficiary of voter worries about the national economy.
"Voters right now are siding with Barack Obama as the best person they think to deal with the economic issues, not John McCain, and I didn't see anything that changed that," he said.
Recent national polls have given Obama a lead of anywhere between four and 14 points, largely because of voter concerns about the economy.
In the last two weeks of the campaign, the candidates will focus on about ten so-called battleground or swing states where both campaigns are competitive. The candidates need to carry most of those states to win enough of the electoral votes that are awarded on a state by state basis.
Obama is campaigning hard in states that Republican presidential candidates won in recent elections - states like Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado, where some polls have shown Obama pulling slightly ahead of McCain.
McCain meanwhile is focused on holding larger swing states seen as critical to his chances such as Florida and Ohio. President Bush won both of those states in the 2000 and 2004 elections.