CONCORD, N.C. — John McCain sharpened his attack on presidential rival Barack Obama's economic proposals Saturday, accusing the Democrat of seeking to turn the United States into a socialist country and convert the IRS into a giant "welfare agency" that would dole out cash at Washington's discretion.
"The only 'welfare' in this campaign," Obama fired back during a huge rally in St. Louis, "is John McCain's plan to give another $200 billion in tax cuts to the wealthiest corporations in America." Police estimated the crowd at 100,000.
In recent days, McCain has seized on a comment that Obama made in defending his tax policies to Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, an Ohio man now better known as Joe the Plumber. Obama, who was canvassing Wurzelbacher's neighborhood last weekend, told him, among other things: "When you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."
McCain, delivering a national radio address before setting out for stops Saturday in North Carolina and Virginia, said Obama's approach sounded "a lot like socialism."
"At least in Europe, the socialist leaders who so admire my opponent are upfront about their objectives," the Republican nominee said. "They use real numbers and honest language. And we should demand equal candor from Sen. Obama. Raising taxes on some in order to give checks to others is not a tax cut. It's just another government giveaway."
Obama has said that his plan would cut taxes for 95% of working Americans, including Wurzelbacher. McCain has said 40% of Americans don't pay income taxes, either because they are elderly or don't make enough money.
"In other words, Barack Obama's tax plan would convert the IRS into a giant welfare agency, redistributing massive amounts of wealth at the direction of politicians in Washington," McCain said in his radio remarks.
Strategists for the Arizona Republican see Obama's spread-the-wealth comment as a major gaffe -- providing an opening on an issue that has worked to the benefit of the Democratic nominee amid the nation's financial crisis.
Socialist theory calls for collective ownership of most private enterprise and for an egalitarian society. Karl Marx argued that socialism was a transitional phase between capitalism and communism.
Obama responded to McCain's charges at a rally at the Gateway Arch.
"Lately, Sen. McCain has been attacking my middle-class tax cut," Obama said. "He actually said it goes to 'those who don't pay taxes,' even though it only goes to working people who are already getting taxed on their paycheck. That's right, Missouri: John McCain is so out of touch with the struggles you are facing that he must be the first politician in history to call a tax cut for working people 'welfare.' "
Obama cast their differences as a question of values.
"John McCain thinks that the way to rebuild this economy is to double-down on George Bush's policy of giving more and more tax breaks to those at the very top in the false hope that it will all trickle down," Obama said, to boos and catcalls. "I think it's time to rebuild the middle class in this country, and that is the choice in this election."
The Illinois senator was referring to McCain's plan to make permanent the tax cuts enacted in President Bush's first term, which are set to expire Dec. 31, 2010. McCain says that letting the cuts expire amounts to a tax increase that would badly undermine the already struggling economy.
Standing beneath the 630-foot stainless steel sculpture, his suit jacket off, Obama spoke to an audience that covered hundreds of yards of sloping hillside at a park in downtown St. Louis. Others stood on balconies and in side streets, or peered from the windows of nearby high-rise apartments.
The crowd far surpassed the 75,000 people who showed up to see Obama in Portland, Ore., during the primaries, as well as the 80,000 who packed Denver's football stadium to hear his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention.
Hours later, 75,000 turned out to see Obama across the state in Kansas City. (The biggest crowd of the campaign, an estimated 200,000 people, gathered in Berlin during Obama's summer swing through Europe.)
Obama is driving deep into Republican territory. Missouri supported President Bush in 2000 and 2004, and has gone with the winner in all but one presidential contest over the last century. Obama's visit was his seventh since clinching the Democratic nomination in June.
McCain spent Saturday in Virginia and North Carolina, states that Republicans used to take for granted.
In the heart of conservative North Carolina and later at an outdoor rally in Woodbridge, Va., about 25 miles southwest of Washington, McCain drew crowds of several thousand. He used both events to hammer Obama's tax plans -- a focus that McCain's aides hope can boost the Republican in the last two weeks of the race, much as his surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for his running mate helped in September.
The campaign has been portraying Wurzelbacher -- as it has Palin -- as a working-class hero. On Saturday, McCain aides distributed hand-painted signs for supporters to wave for the TV cameras: "Fight for Joe the Plumber," "I'm Joe the Plumber" and "Don't Take Joe the Plumber's $$$."
Drogin reported from North Carolina and Virginia, Barabak from Missouri.