WASHINGTON — Republican John McCain, the clock ticking down on a chance to narrow Democrat Barack Obama's lead in polls, fended off comments Saturday comparing him to a well-known segregationist and attempted to pivot back toward policy differences.
Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and veteran of the civil rights movement, says the negative tone of the Republican presidential campaign reminds him of the hateful atmosphere that segregationist Gov. George Wallace fostered in Alabama in the 1960s.
Republican candidate John McCain on Saturday called Lewis' remarks "shocking and beyond the pale."
The Obama campaign said the Illinois senator doesn't believe McCain or his policy criticism is at all comparable to Wallace and his segregationist policies.
In a statement issued Saturday, Lewis said McCain and running mate Sarah Palin were "sowing the seeds of hatred and division, and there is no need for this hostility in our political discourse." He noted that Wallace also ran for president.
"George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights," said Lewis, who is black.
Lewis' remarks follow widely reported examples of anger at McCain rallies that has been aimed at Obama, the first black man to be a major party's nominee for president. McCain himself drew boos at a town-hall meeting Friday in Minnesota when he defended Obama after a supporter said he feared what would happen if Obama were elected president. He also cut short a woman who said Obama was an Arab, and he called his rival "a decent, family man."
On Saturday, McCain called on Obama to repudiate Lewis' remarks. While dismissing the comparison to Wallace, Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said Lewis was on target in other ways.
"John Lewis was right to condemn some of the hateful rhetoric that John McCain himself personally rebuked just last night, as well as the baseless and profoundly irresponsible charges from his own running mate that the Democratic nominee for president of the United States 'pals around with terrorists,'" Burton said in a statement.
McCain rejected any comparison to Wallace.
"I am saddened that John Lewis, a man I've always admired, would make such a brazen and baseless attack on my character and the character of the thousands of hardworking Americans who come to our events to cheer for the kind of reform that will put America on the right track," McCain said.
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Focused on economy
Earlier Saturday, McCain kept his speech in Davenport, Iowa, focused on the economy and other policies, a striking change from just days ago when his campaign redoubled its challenge to Obama over his association with a former '60s radical. McCain also claimed that American voters didn't really know Obama and his own "radical" views.
Supporters had shouted "terrorist" and "off with his head" at the mention of Obama's connections to former Weather Underground member William Ayers, whose group bombed federal buildings in protest of the Vietnam War when Obama was a child. The two had worked together on community projects in Chicago, and Obama has denounced Ayers' violent past.
Video: Obama respects remarks made by McCain McCain returned to a note of civility on Saturday as his quandary became clearer: He needed to excite his party's base without inciting them, challenge Obama while being an honorable opponent, and find a game-changing strategy for his faltering campaign without crossing the line.
When an anti-war protester interrupted him, McCain nervously watched what the crowd would do. The protester was hoisted on shoulders and McCain's supporters chanted "We want John."
"You know, my friends, there's a perfect example of some people who just don't get it," McCain said to thunderous applause.
"As people are trying to stay in their homes, keep their jobs and afford health care, is what they want for us, to yell at each other?" he asked. "No. They want us to sit down together, Republican and Democrat, to work through this terrible time of crisis."
Just days ago, on the stump and in ads, the question was "Who is Barack Obama?" For the moment, that question was shelved.
"Which candidate's experience in government and in life makes him a more reliable leader for our country and commander in chief for our troops?" McCain asked. "In short: Who's ready to lead?"
McCain's most serious criticism of Obama on Saturday was over health care, not character. His advisers say that they will aggressively challenge Obama's record but will not to make it personal. The two are to meet for a third and final debate on Wednesday.
Unhelpful for establishing the tone McCain sought in Davenport was the Rev. Arnold Conrad, past pastor of the Grace Evangelical Free Church. His prayer before McCain arrived at the convention center blocks from the Mississippi River appeared to dismiss faiths other than Christianity and cast the election as a referendum on God himself.
"I would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons," Conrad said.
"And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and Election Day," he said.
This story includes reports from NBC News and The Associated Press.
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