Sen. John McCain and his Republican allies are readying a newly aggressive assault on Sen. Barack Obama's character, believing that to win in November they must shift the conversation back to questions about the Democrat's judgment, honesty and personal associations, several top Republicans said.
With just a month to go until Election Day, McCain's team has decided that its emphasis on the senator's biography as a war hero, experienced lawmaker and straight-talking maverick is insufficient to close a growing gap with Obama. The Arizonan's campaign is also eager to move the conversation away from the economy, an issue that strongly favors Obama and has helped him to a lead in many recent polls.
"We're going to get a little tougher," a senior Republican operative said, indicating that a fresh batch of television ads is coming. "We've got to question this guy's associations. Very soon. There's no question that we have to change the subject here," said the operative, who was not authorized to discuss strategy and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Being so aggressive has risks for McCain if it angers swing voters, who often say they are looking for candidates who offer a positive message about what they will do. That could be especially true this year, when frustration with Washington politics is acute and a desire for specifics on how to fix the economy and fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is strong.
Robert Gibbs, a top Obama adviser, dismissed the new McCain strategy. "This isn't 1988," he said. "I don't think the country is going to be distracted by the trivial." He added that Obama will continue to focus on the economy, saying that Americans will remain concerned about the country's economic troubles even as the Wall Street crisis eases somewhat.
'Just the beginning'
Moments after the House of Representatives approved a bailout package for Wall Street on Friday afternoon, the McCain campaign released a television ad that challenges Obama's honesty and asks, "Who is Barack Obama?" The ad alleges that "Senator Obama voted 94 times for higher taxes. Ninety-four times. He's not truthful on taxes." The charge that Obama voted 94 times for higher taxes has been called misleading by independent fact-checkers, who have noted that the majority of those votes were on nonbinding budget resolutions.
A senior campaign official called the ad "just the beginning" of commercials that will "strike the new tone" in the campaign's final days. The official said the "aggressive tone" will center on the question of "whether this guy is ready to be president."
McCain's only positive commercial, called "Original Mavericks," has largely been taken off the air, according to Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political ads.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's performance at Thursday night's debate embodied the new approach, as she used every opportunity to question Obama's honesty and fitness to serve as president. At one point she said, "Barack Obama voted against funding troops [in Iraq] after promising that he would not do so."
Palin kept up the attack yesterday, saying in an interview on Fox News that Obama is "reckless" and that some of what he has said, "in my world, disqualifies someone from consideration as the next commander in chief."
McCain hinted Thursday that a change is imminent, perhaps as soon as next week's debate. Asked at a Colorado town hall, "When are you going to take the gloves off?" the candidate grinned and replied, "How about Tuesday night?"
Yesterday in Pueblo, Colo., McCain made clear that he intends to press Obama on a variety of familiar GOP themes during the debate, as he accused the Democrat once again of getting ready to raise taxes and increase government spending.
"I guarantee you, you're going to learn a lot about who's the liberal and who's the conservative and who wants to raise your taxes and who wants to lower them," McCain said.
A senior aide said the campaign will wait until after Tuesday's debate to decide how and when to release new commercials, adding that McCain and his surrogates will continue to cast Obama as a big spender, a high taxer and someone who talks about working across the aisle but doesn't deliver.
Two other top Republicans said the new ads are likely to hammer the senator from Illinois on his connections to convicted Chicago developer Antoin "Tony" Rezko and former radical William Ayres, whom the McCain campaign regularly calls a domestic terrorist because of his acts of violence against the U.S. government in the 1960s.
The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. appears to be off limits after McCain condemned the North Carolina Republican Party in April for an ad that linked Obama to his former pastor, saying, "Unfortunately, all I can do is, in as visible a way as possible, disassociate myself from that kind of campaigning."
McCain advisers said the new approach is in part a reaction to Obama, whose rhetoric on the stump and in commercials has also become far harsher and more aggressive.
They noted that Obama has run television commercials for months linking McCain to lobbyists and hinting at a lack of personal ethics — an allegation that particularly rankles McCain, aides said.
Campaigning in Abington, Pa., yesterday, Obama continued to focus on the economy, even as he lashed out at McCain.
"He's now going around saying, 'I'm going to crack down on Wall Street' . . . but the truth is he's been saying 'I'm all for deregulation' for 26 years," Obama said. "He hasn't been getting tough on CEOs. He hasn't been getting tough on Wall Street. . . . Suddenly a crisis comes and the polls change, and suddenly he's out there talking like Jesse Jackson."
Obama highlighted a new report showing a reduction of more than 159,000 jobs last month, and he linked the bad economic news to McCain and Palin.
"Governor Palin said to Joe Biden that our plan to get our economy out of the ditch was somehow a job-killing plan; that's what she said," Obama told a crowd of thousands. "I wonder if she turned on the news this morning. . . . When Senator McCain and his running mate talk about job killing, that's something they know a thing or two about, because the policies they've supported and are supporting are killing jobs in America every single day."
'A very aggressive last 30 days'
McCain issued a statement yesterday saying the bailout bill "is not perfect, and it is an outrage that it's even necessary. But we must stop the damage to our economy done by corrupt and incompetent practices on Wall Street and in Washington."
Speaking in Pueblo just as the House was finishing deliberations on the package, McCain blamed fellow lawmakers for the failure to adequately regulate the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
"It was the Democrats and some Republicans in the Congress who pushed back and did not allow those reforms to take place, and that's a major reason we are in the trouble we are in today," he said. "Those members of Congress ought to be held accountable on November 4th as well."
Before the bailout crisis, aides said, McCain was succeeding in focusing attention on Obama's record and character. Now, they say, he must return to those subjects.
"We are looking for a very aggressive last 30 days," said Greg Strimple, one of McCain's top advisers. "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."
Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.