The Arizona senator acknowledged during the Republican debate held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., that "things are tough right now" but took a longer range view.
"I think you could argue that Americans over all are better off because we have had a pretty good, prosperous time with low unemployment and low inflation, and a lot of good things have happened, a lot of jobs have been created," McCain said.
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, disagreed, noting unemployment is up to 5 percent, making it hard for people to make ends meet.
"I think what Americans are looking for is somebody who's just honest with them and straight with them, and tell them that, no, it's not better and it's not going to get better unless we have some serious leadership in Washington ...," Huckabee said.
Likewise, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said people are worse off "but it's partially this administration's fault and it's the Congress."
"The standard of living is going down today ... and the middle class is hurting because of the monetary policy," Paul said.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney touted his executive experience at the state level.
"I came into a state which was very much in a deep ditch," he said. "We solved our budget problem, (a) $3 billion budget gap, without raising taxes."