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McCain's best hope: Joe the plumber

Many time-tested tactics have failed John McCain in his race for the presidency. With 19 days to go, he's hoping a blunt Ohioan can help him close the gap.

By Nina Easton, Washington bureau chief
Last Updated: October 16, 2008: 2:47 PM ET

WASHINGTON (Fortune) -- John McCain has tried to paint his Democratic opponent as a big-spending, big-taxing liberal. In normal times, this would have been an effective strategy; large swathes of Americans - especially the independent voters still up for grabs - are wary of a politician with a voting record as liberal as that of the junior senator from Illinois.

But these are not normal times.

How do you condemn Obama as a Big-Government Liberal when your fellow Republicans in the White House are busily nationalizing portions of the country's biggest banks, bailing out the world's largest insurer, taking over semi-private mortgage securities firms - and, along the way, putting several hundred billion dollars in taxpayer money at risk? When your own plan, borrowed from Hillary Clinton, commands the Treasury Department to spend $300 billion to buy up home mortgages from people who can't make their payments?

So in Wednesday's debate, McCain shifted tactics to accuse Obama of being one of those liberals eager to take your hard-earned wealth and redistribute it to those less hard working or less fortunate. And that's when we got to meet Joe the Plumber, whose name came up 26 times in the course of 90 minutes.

Joe is Joe Wurzelbacher, a Toledo, Ohio plumber who showed up at an Obama rally to challenge the Democrat's tax policies. Wurzelbacher wants to buy the business where he works but says he's worried that, if the company is successful, he'll face higher taxes. Obama has said that he'll cut taxes for those making under $250,000 but that people making more than that would see an increase.

'Spread the wealth around'

"It's not that I want to punish your success," Obama told him in an episode captured on a TV camera. "I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they've got a chance for success too...I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."

Obama's "spread the wealth around" response was McCain's first weapon out of the box, and his most effective one of the evening. "The whole premise behind Senator Obama's plans are class warfare, let's spread the wealth around," McCain said. "Why would you want to increase anybody's taxes right now...when these small business people, like Joe the plumber, are going to create jobs, unless you take that money from him and spread the wealth around."

Judging by McCain's Cheshire grin, and repeated replays of Joe's story (later in the debate he said Obama's health plan would penalize Joe; Obama said it wouldn't), the Arizona senator clearly thought this could be his "game-changing" moment - that the discovery of a video-clip capturing Obama's exchange with Joe would reset a presidential race that seems headed toward a solid Obama victory.

Maybe. Joe the Plumber did put a face on a critique of Obama that McCain hasn't been very effective at making before now - not only reminding independent voters that the Democrat wants to "spread the wealth" but also that Obama's tax plans, which he repeatedly says would mean cuts for 95% of Americans, would hurt profitable small businesses that are the biggest job producers in the country, and the likely engine of any economic recovery.

Joe is already proving an able media surrogate for McCain, even more so since he won't say which candidate he plans to vote for. His story and photo are all over the national press today. CBS' Katie Couric snagged an interview last night in which Wurzelbacher said, "I've always wanted to ask one of these guys a question and really corner them and get them to answer a question...for once instead of tap dancing around it."

"Unfortunately," he added in pointed attack on Obama, "I asked the question but I still got the tap dance."

A tall order

But it's a tall order to ask Joe to turn around the McCain campaign with only 19 days to go. The Real Clear Politics average shows Obama leading by seven points nationally. He has a wide lead in improbable places like Virginia, and is more narrowly ahead in important battlegrounds like Florida and Ohio.

Most tellingly, perhaps, is this week's New York Times/CBS poll, which found that roughly 7 in 10 voters think Obama has the right kind of "temperament and personality" to be president, while just over half said that of McCain. Last night, Obama played a cool, calm, unflustered defense - guarding his baseline while his opponent scrambled and sweated all over the tennis court. That performance will likely reinforce the sense that it is Obama, less so McCain, who has a presidential temperament.

But McCain's biggest problem lies outside his control. Despite unprecedented federal interventions into the financial markets, the Dow Jones dropped 733 points Wednesday and Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke warned of painful economic times ahead. A tanking economy hurts McCain's prospects, but it also robs him of his best line of attack on Obama; that his tax plan will stifle an economic recovery.

McCain may think of himself as a "free-market" Republican, but like his GOP colleagues in the Bush administration he has had to set that aside to become a "safe-market" Republican. All that expensive government activism on the part of Republicans in the past few weeks makes Obama's latest plan to spend another $60 billion - on top of the $115 billion he already proposed to stimulate the economy - look like chump change. McCain himself this week proposed another $52 billion in spending for short-term relief.

That leaves McCain with few other places to go on attack. Last night he tried again to hang '60s terrorist William Ayers on Obama - polls suggest that doesn't work. He's tried to dismiss Obama as inexperienced, untraveled, unready to be president - the CBS poll suggests that hasn't worked.

So now it's Joe's turn. We'll see if that works. To top of page

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