JACKSONVILLE — As he started a two-day swing through Florida, Sen. John McCain expressed grave concern Monday about the collapse of Lehman Brothers but insisted that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong" — an assessment that drew biting criticism from Democrats.
By the time he had arrived in Orlando for a town hall event, the Arizona Republican was using far more urgent words.
"The American economy is in a crisis. It is in a crisis," he said. "People tonight will be sitting around the kitchen table, trying to figure out how they're going to stay in their homes, how they're going to keep their jobs, how they're going to put food on the table."
The dual approach illustrated how the economy has become the central and thorny issue in the race for president and how critical it is for both candidates to seem in control.
In Jacksonville, McCain cast himself as someone who would stabilize financial markets through reform. And he said taxpayers should not be on the hook for bailing out Lehman Brothers.
"A McCain-Palin administration will replace the outdated, patchwork quilt of regulatory oversight and bring transparency and accountability to Wall Street," he said to about 3,000 people at Veterans Memorial Arena.
"I promise you we will never put America in this position again. We will clean up Wall Street."
But Democrats jumped on his more upbeat assessment about the fundamentals of the economy being strong, saying it showed McCain is out of touch.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I could walk from here to Lansing and I wouldn't run into a single person who thought our economy was doing well, unless I ran into John McCain," Sen. Joe Biden, Barack Obama's running mate, told an audience in Michigan.
McCain's criticism of shoddy oversight of Wall Street seemed directed, in part, at President Bush, though he did not mention his name. It provided for an odd juxtaposition as the president's brother, Jeb Bush, sat in the stands.
The former Florida governor was treated to wild applause from the Jacksonville crowd — cheers that surpassed those for Gov. Charlie Crist — and he gave a spirited introduction of McCain.
"This is a perilous world," said Bush, who is a paid adviser to Lehman Brothers. "Much better to have someone who sits in the Oval Office that understands how the world is and doesn't coddle dictators and doesn't want to openly discuss anything, any time with our enemies."
The absence of Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain's running mate, may have tempered turnout, but those who showed up were a raucous bunch, and McCain said he needs every ounce of their energy to take the state.