( Reuters ) - Republicans John McCain and Mike Huckabee touted their economic credentials in South Carolina on Friday on the eve of the South's first vote for U.S. presidential nominees, while rival Mitt Romney pressed his advantage out West in Nevada.
Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama also campaigned in Nevada before its caucuses on Saturday, criticizing the plan President George W. Bush unveiled on Friday to help keep the economy out of recession as too little, too late.
McCain, an Arizona senator, sounded inclined to go along with an economic stimulus plan but railed against government spending at campaign stops in Myrtle Beach and Florence, South Carolina, as he sought to build on his lead in the state over Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor.
McCain criticized Bush for signing a recent spending bill that he said contained 9,200 "pork barrel" projects, or those pushed by special interests, worth $17 billion (8.7 billion pounds), saying such bills should be vetoed.
"As a Republican, I stand before you embarrassed, embarrassed, that we let that spending get out of control," McCain said, adding he was not surprised the economy was stumbling.
Huckabee said Bush, who will leave office in January 2009 after November's presidential and congressional elections, was on the right track with his push for about $145 billion in temporary tax breaks and other steps to stimulate the economy.
Huckabee used the downturn to take a swipe at McCain.
"People know that Washington insiders are probably not the right people to put in charge of an economy," he told Fox News during a break between campaign events in South Carolina.
"Governors who have dealt with these issues of joblessness and the challenge of economic downturns, that's who we need right now."
With economists talking of a possible recession in the United States before the November 4 election, financial markets have been reeling from bleak reports of falling retail sales and rising unemployment on top of soaring oil prices and a credit crunch brought on by a crisis in subprime mortgages.
The South Carolina Republican primary on Saturday is the first of the state-by-state nominating contests to choose presidential candidates to take place in the southern United States. It will serve as a test of the candidates' appeal among socially conservative Christian voters.
McCain held a 7-point lead in South Carolina over Huckabee, 29 percent to 22 percent, in a Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll released on Friday. But Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher, was hoping his Southern roots and religious leanings would boost his appeal among the state's social conservatives.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor running a distant third in South Carolina, travelled west to Nevada, where a poll by the Las Vegas Review-Journal showed him with a 15-point lead over McCain in the state's Republican nominating contest. Nearly 7 percent of Nevadans share Romney's Mormon faith.
"I would like to win in South Carolina but I know Senator McCain has a strong lead. But I think we may well surprise folks by how well we do there," Romney said.
He said Bush's economic plan was an important step and called for tax cuts on businesses and individuals, adding it must be "passed very, very quickly."
Democratic presidential candidates campaigning in Nevada also focused on economic issues but criticized Bush's plan.
"I don't think it does enough," Clinton, a New York senator, told workers at a small printing business in Las Vegas. "It leaves out 50 million working Americans, people who are on fixed incomes, who are seniors."
Obama, an Illinois senator, said Bush had waited too late but also criticized Clinton, accusing her of changing her own stimulus proposals in recent days.
"This is a larger point," he told a big crowd in Reno. "The American people don't want a president whose policies change with the moment."
The Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll released on Friday showed Clinton with a 5-point lead over Obama in Nevada's Democratic race, 42 percent to 37 percent, with former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards a distant third with 12 percent.