Fixing the economy comes down to a question of how

As the faltering economy has catapulted to the top of the presidential campaign agenda, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama have both said they want to make health care more affordable, cut taxes and adopt a new energy strategy.

But they have laid out far different paths to achieving these goals.

While Obama is calling for government to do more to address the nation's ills, McCain is embracing the traditional GOP faith in free market solutions. The difference gives voters a stark choice about the nation's direction after President Bush leaves office.

It has also set the stage for a robust debate, not about the kinds of nuances that distinguished candidates in the party primary contests, but over the fundamental balance between government intervention and free market forces in managing the economy.

“When it comes to the economy, John McCain and I have a fundamentally different vision of where to take the country,” Obama said in a major economic speech in North Carolina earlier this month.

McCain echoed that in his economic speech last week: “We offer very different choices to the American people.”

Neither candidate has so far made a name for himself as an economic-policy leader. Obama has built his public life in Washington around the cause of reforming a political system riddled with special interests. McCain has acknowledged that he is not as well versed in economics as in national security matters. Until the 2008 campaign, McCain's signature economic cause was fighting pork barrel spending in Congress.

“Obama's only been in the Senate for not quite four years,” said William Niskanen, a conservative economist at the Cato Institute. “McCain is picking up ideas and articulating them almost for the first time. He doesn't have that much of a footprint on economic matters.”

But both are marshaling economic advisors and advancing policies with dispatch because public anxiety about high gas prices, rising unemployment and mortgage foreclosures has spiked in recent months.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center on the People and the Press found that 88percent of voters surveyed said the economy was a very important factor in their decision about how to vote this fall – more than any other issue, and up from 74 percent in June 2007.

The candidates' different tacks were in evidence as the home mortgage crisis ballooned. Obama offered a plan that included aggressive regulation of financial institutions, relief for homeowners and a $30 billion economic stimulus package.

McCain initially criticized Obama's plan as a “multi-billion-dollar bailout for big banks and speculators.” Then, he faced a barrage of criticism for downplaying a government role in responding to the crisis. Two weeks later, he changed his tone and proposed spending up to $10 billion for government-backed mortgages to “deserving” homeowners facing foreclosure.

On health care, Obama leans hard on government action to make insurance more affordable and, ultimately, universally available. He would make coverage mandatory for children, expand federal subsidies for the uninsured and impose new funding requirements on employers.

McCain, in his health plan, shuns that infusion of government money and authority and instead relies on market competition to drive down costs. He would establish new tax incentives for individuals to get their own health insurance and reduce the incentives for people to get insurance through their employers.