KWAME HOLMAN: Three-and-a-half weeks before Election Day, the major presidential nominees are burning up the campaign trail and lighting up the airwaves, spending unprecedented millions on mostly TV advertising to saturate a handful of toss-up states.
Barack Obama was in Ohio today, a state that went for George Bush four years ago. But recent polls there show Obama reversing a September slide, and he’s now neck-and-neck with John McCain as the focus of the race has shifted to the economy.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: If you’ve invested your life savings in the stock market, or if your pension has invested in the stock market, if you’ve got a 401(k), you’ve probably watched a good chunk of your savings disappear. It’s now a 101(k). It’s not a 401(k). It’s a 101(k).
KWAME HOLMAN: Obama spoke in Dayton this morning, criticizing McCain’s new proposal to stem the housing crisis through government buyouts of bad mortgages.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Senator McCain actually wants the government to pay the full face value of mortgages on the books, even though they’re not worth that much anymore. So banks wouldn’t take a loss, but taxpayers would take a loss.
It’s a plan that would guarantee that you, the American taxpayers, would lose by handing over $300 billion to underwrite the kind of greed and irresponsibility on Wall Street that got us into this mess.
KWAME HOLMAN: Obama also ratcheted up his critique of McCain’s temperament and tied it to the Republican nominee’s plans to address the housing bust.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: He’s ended up with a plan that punishes taxpayers, rewards banks, and won’t solve our housing crisis. This is the kind of erratic behavior we’ve been seeing out of Senator McCain. You remember the first day of this crisis, he came out and said the economy was fundamentally sound. Then, two hours later, he said we were in a crisis. I don’t think we can afford that kind of erratic and uncertain leadership in these uncertain times.
McCain answers back
KWAME HOLMAN: Four hundred miles away in Waukesha, Wisconsin, McCain and running mate Sarah Palin focused on the problems of the economy, but also on their problems with Obama.
McCain defended his plan to help homeowners with troubled mortgages and the institutions that lent them money. He also pinned the blame for the recent economic tumult on the Democrats.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Senator Obama was happy to bail out Bear Stearns, AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, his pals there, and the Democrats in Congress that refused to reform Freddie Mac and enact legislation to stop this crisis, but he's opposed to us helping the homeowners of America.
KWAME HOLMAN: An audience member asked McCain why he wasn't making more of Obama's association with former 1960s' radical William Ayers. Obama served with Ayers on a charitable foundation board in the 1990s.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: We don't care about an old, washed-up terrorist and his wife, who still, at least on September 11, 2001, said he still wanted to bomb more. You know, that's not the point here.
The point is Senator Obama said he was just a guy in the neighborhood. We know that's not true. We need to know the full extent of the relationship, because of whether Senator Obama is telling the truth to the American people or not.
MCCAIN SUPPORTER: I'm mad! I'm really mad!
KWAME HOLMAN: Several McCain supporters angrily criticized Obama and news outlets for failing to be tough enough on the Democratic candidate. Palin said she shared their frustration.
GOV. SARAH PALIN (R), Alaska: It's dangerous territory whenever I suggest that mainstream media perhaps isn't asking all the questions. You guys have to help us do that.
And then one more thing. And then one more thing. I know, when my impatience, through interviews or anything else, shows, I know when that happens that some of you may think that I'm just trying to provide job security for Tina Fey.
Well, no, it's because I am like you and I wonder, too, when will the questions be asked and when will we get the answers?
Biden acting on McCain attacks
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden campaigned in swing state Missouri and gave his analysis of the McCain charges.
SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: You know what they're going to try to do. They're going to take the lowest road to the highest office in the land and hope it works again for them. But that's exactly -- exactly what they're doing now.
And think about it: A recent survey says that 100 percent of John McCain and Sarah Palin's ads, campaign's ads, 100 percent are negative. I guess when you vote with Bush 90 percent of the time, you have to go negative 100 percent of the time in order to make a point.
KWAME HOLMAN: The rising number of on-the-stump attacks on each candidate's character has been mirrored over the airwaves. The McCain and Obama campaigns combined to spend a record $28 million last week. Two-thirds of that battleground state spending was by Obama, says Evan Tracey, head of the nonpartisan Campaign Media Analysis Group.
EVAN TRACEY, Campaign Media Analysis Group: Right now, the majority of their spending is going into television advertising. It's touching about 15 states right now.
And where you really see Barack Obama's financial advantage showing up is in these day-over-day media buys. His spending right now is eclipsing $3 million a day; Senator McCain's are slightly over a million dollars.
In a number of media markets, Senator Obama has a 4- and 5-to-1 advantage as far as spots on the air and dollars spent.
Attack ads, strategy and necessity
KWAME HOLMAN: And Tracey says the campaigns are turning out ads nearly instantaneously, such as this one from Obama today assailing McCain's new mortgage bailout plan.
TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: McCain would shift the burden from lenders to taxpayers, guaranteeing a loss of taxpayer money. Who wins? The same lenders that caused the crisis in the first place. Putting bad actors ahead of taxpayers? We can't afford more of the same.
KWAME HOLMAN: McCain's ads focus on taxes, which he claims would rise under Obama, and on Obama's character.
TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: How extreme. But when pressed, how does he defend himself?
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: They're not telling the truth. I hate to say that people are lying, but here's a situation where folks are lying.
TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: Mr. Obama, we all know the truth.
EVAN TRACEY: McCain has got -- had to go a lot more negative, for two reasons. One, he's trailing in the polls. But the second reason is negative ads cut through better. People are a more inclined to listen to negative ads.
So, right now, he's doing them both out of strategy and necessity. Senator Obama's been a little more positive, but, you know, don't let -- you know, don't be fooled into thinking that he's entirely positive.
KWAME HOLMAN: And both campaigns are producing more Web-based ads than in previous elections, hoping they'll be picked up by cable news, but also to supply what Tracey calls "tomatoes for the food fight" between committed partisans on both sides.
TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: Barack Obama and domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, friends.
KWAME HOLMAN: The McCain campaign released this Web ad today about Obama associate William Ayers.
EVAN TRACEY: They realize that there's sort of partisan media, there's a blogosphere that is hungry for content, and the campaigns have been the enabling girlfriends for that.
KWAME HOLMAN: At the rate the two campaigns are putting out advertising, together they'll easily set a spending record of close to $1 billion by Election Day.