Thousands in Concord rally for McCain, and Joe

Alan Perez, a small-business owner hoisting a sign that read, “Fight for Joe the Plumber,” was just the kind of voter Republican John McCain was looking for at Saturday's rally in Concord.

“I kind of see myself as a Joe the Plumber kind of guy,” Perez said. “These signs represent a lot of people.”

Ever since last week's presidential debate thrust him into the headlines, Joe the Plumber – Ohio plumber Joe Wurzelbacher – has become a touchstone for McCain.

“The real winner this week was Joe the Plumber,” he told around 7,000 enthusiastic supporters at the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center. “Joe won, because he's the only person to get a real answer out of Sen. Obama about his plans for our country. Congratulations, Joe.”

McCain's rally was his second this week in North Carolina, a state no Democratic presidential candidate has won since 1976. Polls of N.C. voters show him running virtually even with Democrat Barack Obama. Today, Obama will make his fourth visit to the state since late September with a rally in Fayetteville.

While Obama is outspending McCain on TV ads in North Carolina, Republicans have been flooding homes with automated phone calls and mailers claiming, among other things, that Obama has “close ties” to 1960s radical William Ayers.

Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt Saturday called such attacks “beneath the dignity of a presidential campaign.”

An enthusiastic crowd

In Concord, McCain delivered a 30-minute speech interrupted by chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A!” and a roar at every mention of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. He pledged to rein in spending, explore new energy sources and help troubled homeowners by buying up bad mortgages.

He invoked Joe the Plumber nearly a dozen times.

Wurzelbacher, an aspiring small-business owner, had asked Obama on a campaign stop this month whether his tax plan would hurt him. Obama gave a detailed explanation of his proposal and said by giving tax breaks to more people, it would help small business.

“Right now, everybody's so pinched that business is bad for everybody,” Obama told him. “And I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody.”

McCain has pounced. His campaign passed out posters to Perez and others that read, “I'm Joe the Plumber” and “Let Joe keep his dough.” One supporter brought his own plungers to the rally.

“We learned that Sen. Obama's economic goal is, as he told Joe, is, to quote, ‘spread the wealth around,'” McCain said. “He believes in redistributing wealth, not in policies that grow our economy and create jobs and opportunities for all Americans…

“As Joe has now reminded us all, America didn't become the greatest nation on earth by giving our money to the government to ‘spread the wealth around'… we believe in spreading opportunity.”

Obama spokesman Paul Cox said Obama's comment “is being taken out of context by a campaign that is out of touch, out of ideas, and running out of time.”

“Obama was simply explaining that under his plan, 95 percent of workers and their families are going to get a tax cut.”

American dream

Obama has said he'd give tax cuts to the 95 percent of Americans making under $250,000 a year. He told Wurzelbacher the tax rate on income above $250,000 would rise from 36 percent to 39 percent, but small businesses would get a 50 percent tax credit for health care costs. Tax experts have said it is unclear whether Wurzelbacher would see tax hikes under Obama's plan.

McCain called Obama's tax credits “just another government giveaway.” Cox, citing McCain's proposed $5,000 health care tax credit, accused him of “brazen” hypocrisy.

McCain questioned how Obama would cut taxes for 95percent of Americans “when more than 40 percent pay no income taxes right now? How do you reduce the number zero?”

Obama, speaking to 100,000 people Saturday in St. Louis, said his tax break would go only to people who pay payroll taxes.

“John McCain is so out of touch with the struggles you're facing that he must be the first politician in history to call a tax cut for working people ‘welfare,'” Obama said.

But McCain – and Joe – struck a chord with McCain supporters.

“Joe the Plumber seems to have turned the tide a little bit,” said Jon Miller, a 36-year-old medical salesman from Concord. “(He's) just making people more aware of what the American dream is all about.”

Donny Woodard, 36, a Charlotte financial analyst who was among the few African Americans in the crowd, said he believes McCain “has a clearer message for this country.”

McCain, acknowledging the national polls, offered supporters what he called “hard facts.”

“We have to win the state of North Carolina,” he said. “… Let me give you the state of the race today. We have 17 days to go. We're 6 points down. The national media has written us off. Sen. Obama is measuring the drapes … My friends, we've got them just where we want them.”

The Associated Press and the Washington Post contributed