Barack Obama built on his momentum as he came face-to-face with his Republican rival John McCain in the second presidential debate in the race for the White House.
The “worst financial crisis since the Great Depression” dominated the encounter, which also saw the two candidates trade blows on foreign policy, the Iraq war and health care.
A CNN poll taken immediately after the debate showed 54% thought Mr Obama won, compared with 33% for Mr McCain.
Some US political pundits said the Republican often came across as condescending, suggesting voters may not have heard of the US mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and at one point referring to Mr Obama as “that one” when talking about an energy bill.
Mr McCain also left the debate hall at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, before his Democratic rival, who stayed behind with his wife Michelle to chat with audience members.
The Arizona senator needed a game-changing performance in the debate to get his campaign back on track, and initial reactions in the US showed there were no signs of it.
With just four weeks to go until the election, Mr Obama leads in virtually all the battleground states and has more than a five point lead nationally in the latest average of polls by RealClearPolitics.com.
Mr McCain’s poll numbers plummeted as his campaign stumbled in its handling of the financial crisis engulfing the nation in recent weeks.
Mr Obama said it was the “final verdict on the failed economic policies of the past eight years”.
The Illinois senator said the US was “in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression” and the $700bn financial rescue package was “step one”.
He also reminded the millions of Americans watching that his rival had recently said “the fundamentals of the economy are strong”.
Eager to get started in the town hall debate format which he was known to favour, Mr McCain stood up next to his seat while Mr Obama was talking.
“Americans are angry, they’re upset and they’re a little fearful,” he said.
He also proposed a $300bn programme for the US government to buy up bad home mortgages and allow homeowners to keep their houses.
“Until we stabilise home values in America, we’re never going to start turning around and creating jobs and fixing our economy, and we’ve got to get some trust and confidence back to America,” he said.
Moments earlier, the two candidates walked to the centre of the arena at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, smiled and shook hands before taking their seats on the tall stools set out for them as they prepared to take questions from pre-selected “undecided” voters in the audience.
They were meeting after the race took an aggressively negative turn over the weekend, with the McCain campaign claiming Mr Obama was linked with terrorists and the Obama campaign accusing Mr McCain of using “smear tactics” to distract voters.
But the debate format allowed few opportunities for the pair to clash directly and they offered little that they has not said previously.
In those rare moments, Mr McCain criticised his rival’s economic plans, saying that tying down his tax proposals was “like nailing jello to a wall”.
In response, Mr Obama said: “Senator McCain, I think the Straight-talk Express lost a wheel on that one,” referring to the name Mr McCain uses for his campaign bus and jet.
After 45-minutes of debating the economic crisis, roughly half of the debate, the questions moved on to other issues, including energy, foreign policy and healthcare.
The two men clashed over the Iraq war, which Mr Obama opposed and Mr McCain supported, and over plans to end it – Mr Obama wants to withdraw US troops within 16 months of taking office while Mr McCain said US troops would only come home if it was in “victory”.
Mr McCain said that, unlike his rival, he would speak softly but carry a big stick and attacked Mr Obama for saying he would invade Pakistan.
The Democrat urged the moderator to allow him time to respond, against the rules of the debate, and both candidates were given more time, leading to an unusual direct confrontation between the two presidential candidates.
Mr Obama said “nobody called for the invasion of Pakistan” and added he had said that if Pakistan “was unable or unwilling to hunt down bin Laden then we should”.
“Senator McCain suggests that somehow I’m green behind the ears and I’ve just spun off and he’s sombre and responsible,” Mr Obama said.
“Sen McCain, this is the guy who sang, ’bomb bomb bomb Iran’; who called for the annihilation of North Korea.
“That I don’t think is an example of speaking softly.”
Mr McCain explained that he was joking with “an old veteran friend” about Iran and that the point was that he knew how to handle crises.
Mr McCain, who shuffles slightly and holds his arms stiffly after being tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, was a stark contrast as he walked around the stage to the tall, lean Mr Obama, 47.
At one point Mr McCain, who at 72 is also grey and balding, poked fun at himself and drew attention to their images when he said that he might need a hair transplant one day himself as the debate moved to healthcare.
Later, both candidates said the US was a “great nation” and would face unknown challenges in the future as they aimed to woo voters in a bid to become the 44th president of the United States.