FAIRFAX, Va. — Republican John McCain distanced himself from an economic adviser who dubbed the United States "a nation of whiners" in a "mental recession" as Democrat Barack Obama turned the remarks against his rival.

"I strongly disagree" with Phil Gramm's remarks, McCain told reporters in Belleville, Mich. "Phil Gramm does not speak for me. I speak for me."

The Republican presidential hopeful said a person who just lost a job "isn't suffering from a mental recession."

"America is in great difficulty. And we are experiencing enormous economic challenges as well as others," McCain said, seeking to stem the fallout of Gramm's comments.

Gramm, a former Texas senator who is a vice chairman of the Swiss bank UBS, made the remarks in an interview with The Washington Times. Gramm has a doctorate in economics.

In Virginia, Obama seized on the comments as he tried to paint McCain as out of touch: "America already has one Dr. Phil. We don't need another one when it comes to the economy."

He drew cheers and laughter with that comment referencing television psychologist "Dr. Phil" McGraw — and boos and hisses when he read Gramm's quotes to his audience. He contrasted them with rising gas and food prices, home foreclosures and job layoffs.

"It's not just a figment of your imagination," Obama said at a town-hall event focused on helping women advance economically. "Let's be clear. This economic downturn is not in your head."

"It isn't whining to ask government to step in and give families some relief," he said, drawing a standing ovation from the nearly 3,000 people in a high school gymnasium. "And I think it's time we had a president who doesn't deny our problems or blame the American people for them but takes responsibility and provides the leadership to solve them."

The economy is the top issue for voters, and, thus, has become the No. 1 issue in the presidential campaign. Each candidate is seeking to portray the other as out of touch with the country's struggles and himself as the leader able to pull the nation out of tenuous times.

Gramm's quotes in the Washington newspaper gave McCain heartburn and Obama an opportunity.

"You've heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession," Gramm told the Times. He noted that growth has held up at about 1 percent despite all the publicity over losing jobs to India, China, illegal immigration, housing and credit problems and record oil prices. "We may have a recession; we haven't had one yet."

"We have sort of become a nation of whiners," Gramm said. "You just hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline" despite a major export boom that is the primary reason that growth continues in the economy, he said.

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Associated Press writer Charles Babington in Michigan contributed to this report.