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McCain seeks to shift race’s focus

Tuesday’s debate is a chance to regain campaign momentum.

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“What Senator McCain is proposing is really dangerous for the American public because ... not only would he tax health benefits for the first time in history, but more seriously he would dismantle state-based regulation and tie the hands of those folks who are involved in consumer protection,” Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) Kansas, an Obama supporter, said in a conference call with reporters Sunday.

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The McCain campaign acknowledges that it would tax currently exempt health benefits as personal income. But it argues that giving a tax credit would equalize a system that currently favors employees who get healthcare benefits over individuals who have to buy them on their own. McCain’s senior economic policy adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, also insisted that it would not undermine state regulations and called the Obama campaign’s ads on the issue “cynical and deceitful.”

“They are saying that it’s a big tax increase, and that is also false,” said Mr. Holtz-Eakin in a conference call with reporters Saturday. “If you are receiving from your employer the health insurance that Barack Obama has decided everyone should have, you will have more money left over for healthcare than you do right now.”

The two candidates are now preparing for Tuesday’s debate – McCain at his Arizona ranch and Obama in North Carolina, a once reliably Republican state that Democrats are hoping to turn in their favor. Last week, McCain assured a voter he would “get tough” using Tuesday’s debate to aggressively go after Obama. His campaign has done nothing to play down expectations, as often happens in predebate skirmishes. Part of the reason is that the debate is town-hall-style, where voters ask the questions. It’s a format McCain excels in.

“John McCain is very good at relating to people and expressing his views. If there’s ever a format that would favor him, it’s the town-hall meeting,” says Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

But Mr. West and other analysts caution that McCain has to find a way to shift the debate toward foreign policy and away from the economy, which remains on most voters’ minds despite passage of the bailout package on Friday. “As long as the debate focuses on the domestic economy, he’s playing on Obama’s home court,” West says.

McCain also has to be careful to contain his well-known temper on Tuesday. As his campaign has struggled with questions about Governor Palin’s experience and McCain’s negative-ad strategy, he has on occasion been “sarcastic and irascible,” as The Des Moines Register in Iowa reported about a recent editorial-board meeting with the Arizona senator.

“In this one, the town-hall format, you have to be polite and warm to the audience and respectful to your opponent,” says Allan Louden, a debate expert at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “That’s going to make it hard for McCain to switch the game in this debate. People also judge candidates by how they treat each other.”