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In South Florida, the candidate fends off attacks on his tax plan.

Sen. Barack Obama continued trying to position himself as the steady leader in the economic crisis, convening a presidential-like summit here Tuesday that featured a low-key but persistent attack on his Republican rival.

"After eight years of Bush-McCain economics, the pie is shrinking," Obama said. "That means lower wages, declining incomes, plummeting home values, rising unemployment. ... This economic crisis is the final verdict on that failed leadership. It is time to try something new."

Obama strived to demonstrate that he was in charge, hushing the crowd when it booed Sen. John McCain, and intently listening, chin resting in hand, to a panel he assembled to discuss the economy.

Flanking him on a stage adorned with 12 American flags were four Democratic governors, the CEO of Google, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and the owner of a small business in Miami who mockingly declared, "I am not Joe the Plumber."

The red meat would come later in Miami, where thousands of people gathered for a 6 p.m. rally. Obama railed against what he said is an increasingly dirty campaign run by McCain, though he was clearly feeling the effect of constant criticism of his tax proposals.

"I've got nothing but love for Joe the Plumber," Obama said, referring to the working man McCain invoked in the last debate. "That's why I want to give him a tax cut. And yet John McCain is still out there, just saying this stuff, just making it up. He knows full well that I will cut taxes for all the working Joes."

Obama asked anyone earning less than $250,000 - the people who would get a tax cut under his plan - to raise their hands, and a sea of hands shot up. "I hope all the cameras got that," Obama said.

Florida, with its 27 electoral votes, has emerged as one of the hottest contested prizes in the campaign. Polls had been showing Obama leading, but the race has tightened up in recent days.

Obama spent Monday and Tuesday in Florida, reminding huge audiences in Tampa, Orlando and South Florida that the state has one of the highest unemployment and foreclosure rates in the country.

"Florida is really getting hammered," Obama said.

McCain, who cannot afford to lose Florida, returns on Thursday. The Arizona Republican campaigned Tuesday in Pennsylvania, blasting Obama's tax plan as a drag on small businesses and a form of socialism, by promising tax cuts for 95 percent of Americans, including those who do not pay taxes.

"He wants to spread the wealth around," McCain told crowds in Harrisburg. "Sen. Obama is more interested in controlling who gets your piece of the pie than he is with growing the pie."

Obama's roundtable at Palm Beach Community College was dry by design. He touted an economic stimulus package that would include $25-billion to help states like Florida. He heard from people like New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who suggested tax cuts for any business that pays above the prevailing wage.

The face of a troubled economy dotted the stands.

"I can't find a job," Teresa Brinkley, 46, said when asked why she had turned out on a Tuesday morning. The mother of three said she left work a year ago to have a child and could not get her position back. "We're struggling here. Groceries are up. Lights are up. Gas is up. Water is up."

Brinkley said she thinks Obama has a better grasp on the issue than McCain because he came from humble means. "He understands," she said.

The roundtable was pitched as a way to generate ideas, should Obama be elected. He talked about providing $15-billion a year to develop solar, wind and other alternative energy sources.

The stagecraft continued as Obama made his way to Miami. He stopped at a barbershop and early voting site in Fort Lauderdale, then a deli in Hollywood where he paid $53.77 for whitefish salad, bagels and cookies.

At every stop, he was greeted with pandemonium as crowds strained for a glimpse. "I shook his hand! I shook his hand!" Michele Stoll, 58, a campaign volunteer shouted.

Times staff writer Wes Allison, traveling with the McCain campaign in Pennsylvania, contributed to this report.

McCain to visit Sarasota

John McCain returns to Florida on Thursday for a bus tour dubbed "Keep your wealth," in honor of Joe the Plumber. McCain will be in Ormond Beach in the morning. That afternoon, he'll be at Robarts Arena in Sarasota. Doors open at 3 p.m. Tickets are available at