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Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama entered their general election contest this summer denouncing American politics as trivial and negative, and vowing to run campaigns that would address the concerns of voters during a difficult time.

But McCain made clear on Monday that he wanted to make the final month of the race a referendum on Obama’s character, background and leadership — a polite way of saying he intends to attack him on all fronts and create or reinforce doubts about him among as many voters as possible. And Obama’s campaign signaled that it would respond in kind, setting up an end game dominated by a dark invocation of events and characters from the lives of both candidates.

The change in tone formed a backdrop for the nationally televised debate between the two candidates on Tuesday night, the second of their three scheduled encounters. It comes when McCain is under increasing pressure to do something to turn around his campaign, with polls giving Obama an advantage in the race and in who Americans trust more to deal with the economy, the issue that now trumps all concerns.

Yet in shifting toward a more negative and personal message, the two campaigns risked seeming detached from the economic anxieties of voters at a time when the financial system is teetering. The risk could be especially great for McCain, who has ceded political ground to Obama during the financial crisis and has taken the more combative stance in recent days.

A lacerating speech he gave Monday — “Who is the real Barack Obama?” McCain asked — was shown on cable television juxtaposed with images of another horrible day on Wall Street. “Whatever the question, whatever the issue, there’s always a back story with Sen. Obama,” McCain said, speaking in Albuquerque. “My opponent’s touchiness every time he is questioned about his record should make us only more concerned.”

During the day, McCain’s running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, raised questions about Obama’s “truthfulness and judgment.” McCain’s supporters sought to focus attention on Obama’s associations with his former pastor and a onetime 1960s radical. The Republican National Committee called for an investigation into questionable campaign contributions to Obama.

Obama’ s campaign responded by releasing a slick, 13-minute video describing McCain’s connections with the Keating Five banking scandal that tarnished McCain during the 1980s, a video that Obama’s advisers said had been held in wait in case this moment arrived. Obama’s aides portrayed McCain as angry and impetuous. Obama scolded his opponent for trying to turn attention away from the economy.

“I can not imagine anything more important to talk about than the economic crisis,” Obama said, campaigning in Asheville, N.C. “And the notion that we’d want to brush that aside and engage in the usual political shenanigans and scare tactics that have come to characterize too many political campaigns, I think is not what the American people are looking for.”