WASHINGTON — Democrat Barack Obama accused Republican opponent John McCain of launching a smear campaign to reverse his slide in the polls and cover up his "erratic" behavior in the face of America's financial crisis.
With four weeks left until Election Day, the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign took a particularly nasty turn Sunday as charges flew between the campaigns. The fierce skirmishing broke out after McCain's running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin claimed in three separate appearances Saturday that Obama sees America as so imperfect "that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."
The incendiary remarks referred to Obama's association with 1960s radical Bill Ayers, a founder of the Weather Underground whose members were blamed for several bombings when Obama was a child. Obama has denounced Ayers' radical views and activities, and there is no evidence they have palled around.
As if expecting the attack, Obama's campaign quickly fired back with a television ad that charged McCain, a 72-year-old four-term senator from Arizona, was "Erratic in a crisis. Out of touch on the economy."
The commercial, which starts playing nationally on cable television Monday, played upon McCain's stumbling response to America's brewing financial difficulties and shifting positions as Congress and the White House hammered out a $700 billion rescue plan.
Several Obama surrogates said Sunday that his supporters may reopen the issue of McCain's ties to Charles Keating, a convicted savings and loan owner whose actions two decades ago triggered a Senate ethics investigation that involved McCain as one of the "Keating Five."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a Chicago Democrat and Obama supporter, warned against McCain's strategy of attacking the Illinois senator's character.
"If we are going to go down this road, you know, Barack Obama was eight years old, somehow responsible for Bill Ayers," he said. "At 58, John McCain was associating with Charles Keating."
"If we really want to talk who is associating with who, we will," Emanuel said. "The American people will lose in that transaction."
Just months into his Senate career, in the late 1980s, McCain made what he has called "the worst mistake of my life." He participated in two meetings with banking regulators on behalf of Keating, a friend, campaign contributor and savings and loan financier who was later convicted of securities fraud.
The Senate ethics committee investigated five senators' relationships with Keating. It cited McCain for a lesser role than the others, but faulted his "poor judgment."
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Palin takes gloves off
Palin, however, stayed on the attack Sunday, defending her claim that Obama "pals around with terrorists."
"The comments are about an association that has been known but hasn't been talked about," Palin said as she boarded her plane in Long Beach, Calif. "I think it's fair to talk about where Barack Obama kicked off his political career, in the guy's living room."
Palin's claim that Obama's association with Ayers "hasn't been talked about" is not true. Obama was questioned about Ayers during a prime-time Democratic debate against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton before April's Pennsylvania primary. McCain also raised the Ayers issue during a television news interview that month. Obama's association with Ayers was regularly brought up by commentators on some cable television news shows, by right-wing radio talk show hosts and on political Web sites.
At issue is Obama's association with Ayers. Both have served on the board of the same Chicago charity and live near each other in Chicago. Ayers also held a meet-the-candidate event at his home for Obama when Obama first ran for office in the mid-1990s, the event cited by Palin.
But while Ayers and Obama are acquainted, the charge that they "pal around" is a stretch of any reading of the public record. And it's simply wrong to suggest that they were associated while Ayers was committing terrorist acts. Obama was 8 years old at the time the Weather Underground claimed credit for numerous bombings and was blamed for a pipe bomb that killed a San Francisco policeman.
McCain adviser Greg Strimple predicted "a very aggressive last 30 days" of the campaign in a recent conference call with reporters.
"We are looking forward to turning a page on this financial crisis and getting back to discussing Mr. Obama's aggressively liberal record and how he will be too risky for Americans," he said.
Obama, too, alluded to harsher tactics in a speech Sunday to thousands of people in Asheville, N.C., a Republican-leaning state where polls show him within striking distance of McCain.
McCain and his aides, Obama said, "are gambling that he can distract you with smears rather than talk to you about substance. They'd rather try to tear our campaign down than lift this country up. It's what you do when you're out of touch, out of ideas, and running out of time."
Noting the nation's serious economic problems, Obama said: "Instead of addressing these crises, Senator McCain's campaign has announced that they plan to turn the page on the discussion about our economy and spend the final weeks of this campaign launching Swiftboat-style attacks on me." He was referring to unsubstantiated allegations about 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry's decorated military record in Vietnam, who was defeated by incumbent President George W. Bush.
Obama leading by 49 percent in new poll
McCain has tried desperately through the campaign to separate himself from Bush, a fellow Republican whose approval rating is near historic lows as American voters blame him for the crumbling economy and hold him responsible for the unpopular Iraq war.
With American voters concerned about economic security above all other issues, Obama is trying to protect his growing margin over McCain and keep the focus on the potential financial meltdown that has sent shudders through the electorate over the past two weeks.
A new poll published Sunday, meanwhile, showed Obama was leading McCain by 49 percent to 42 percent among likely voters in battleground Ohio. The Columbus Dispatch newspaper poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points.
Ohio is critical as the candidates battle to win 270 electoral votes. The state helped tip the balance to Bush in 2000, and its backing kept him in the White House in 2004.
McCain was not campaigning Sunday, taking the day off to prepare for Tuesday's second of three presidential debates at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. Obama's vice presidential candidate Joe Biden was not campaigning either. His mother-in-law died on Sunday. Palin held a fund-raising event in California.
The upcoming debate is critical because McCain has dwindling chances to regain momentum. McCain suggested to supporters that he would take the gloves off and go after Obama more forcefully in the nationally televised confrontation.
McCain's campaign apparently believes that attempting to make Obama, who is seeking to become the first black U.S. president, seem unacceptable to voters may be the Republican's best — if not only — shot at winning the presidency. But that risks a backlash if McCain goes too far.
The Obama campaign called Palin's remarks offensive but not surprising in light of news stories detailing the McCain campaign's come-from-behind offensive.
The escalated effort to attack Obama's character dovetails with TV ads by outside groups questioning Obama's ties to Ayers, convicted former Obama fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko and Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who made remarks considered to be anti-American in his sermons.
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