Mudslinging — initiated over the weekend by Republican John McCain's campaign — gathered intensity in the presidential race Monday as Democrat Barack Obama resurrected his opponent's links to a financial scandal two decades ago.
The heightened attacks set a more hostile tone for the race ahead of Tuesday's presidential debate, the second of three.
Obama, reacting to Republican allegations that he "palled around" with a 1960s radical, fired back with a Web video about McCain's role in the Keating Five savings and loan debacle early in the Arizona senator's Senate career. His role in that scandal earned him a rebuke for poor judgment from Senate colleagues.
The Obama campaign was e-mailing a 13-minute Web "documentary" about McCain's involvement with convicted thrift owner Charles Keating, calling the episode "a window into McCain's economic past, present and future."
With a grave financial crisis dragging the 72-year-old Republican lower in the polls with just four weeks remaining until the Nov. 4 election, the McCain campaign had telegraphed its intention to turn the screws on Obama and declared it wanted to turn the page on the economic turmoil.
On Monday, Obama told reporters McCain was not paying enough attention to the economic crisis gripping the country, emphasizing that he could not "imagine anything more important to talk about" than Americans' losing their jobs, health care and homes.
In an unusually angry retort, McCain sought to divert attention from his newly aggressive strategy by claiming that Obama "never answers the serious and legitimate questions he has been asked."
Speaking in Albuquerque, New Mexico, McCain said his opponent had resorted to calling the Arizona senator a liar every time his record was questioned.
"Let me reply in the plainest terms I know. I don't need lessons about telling the truth to American people. And were I ever to need any improvement in that regard, I probably wouldn't seek advice from a Chicago politician," McCain said in remarks released by his campaign.
An aide to McCain recently said his campaign would like to shift the presidential race's focus away from the economy, which has been a better issue for Democrats than Republicans. Since then, McCain's running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been questioning Obama's character based on his association with an incendiary pastor and a 1960s radical turned college professor.
McCain continues to discuss economic conditions, but Obama says he needs to offer better and more specific remedies.
The fierce skirmishing broke out after Palin claimed during appearances over the weekend that Obama sees America as so imperfect "that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country," a reference to 1960s-era radical Bill Ayers.
Obama and Ayers do not know each other well although they live in the same Chicago neighborhood, have served on a charity board together and Ayers hosted a meet-the-candidate event when Obama first ran for state office in the mid-1990s.
On Monday, Palin expanded her attack on Obama's character to include his relationship with an incendiary former pastor as well as his ties to Ayers.
In the process, Palin toned down her description of the Obama-Ayers relationship after her weekend remarks were criticized as exaggerated, but at the same time she embarked on a discussion of Obama's relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., which Republican presidential candidate John McCain had signaled he did not want to be a part of his campaign.
In an interview with conservative The New York Times columnist William Kristol published Monday, the Alaska governor said there should be more discussion about Wright, Obama's pastor of 20 years at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. The Democratic candidate denounced Wright and severed ties with the church last spring after videotapes surfaced showing Wright making anti-American and anti-Semitic comments from the pulpit.
Wright had appeared to be off limits for the McCain campaign ever since McCain himself condemned the North Carolina Republican Party in April for an ad that called Obama "too extreme" because Wright was his pastor. McCain asked the party to take down the ad and said, "I'm making it very clear, as I have a couple of times in the past, that there's no place for that kind of campaigning, and the American people don't want it."
When Kristol pressed Palin about Wright, she replied, "I don't know why that association isn't discussed more, because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country."
She continued, "To me, that does say something about character. But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up."
Palin also has faced scrutiny over her church practices. A video on her hometown Pentacostal church Web site shows her being blessed three years ago by a Kenyan pastor who prayed for her protection from "witchcraft" as she prepared to seek the governor's office.
At a morning rally in Florida, Palin kept up her criticism of Obama's ties to Ayers, a founder of the violent Weather Underground group blamed for several bombings during the Vietnam War era, when Obama was a child.
The Illinois senator has denounced Ayers' radical views and activities.
"This is someone who sees America as 'imperfect enough' to work with a former domestic terrorist who targeted his own country," Palin said of Obama.
That was a tamer description than Palin used at rallies in California and Colorado over the weekend. But it still showed that Palin was slipping into the traditional attack-dog role of vice presidential candidates.
At Palin's rally, reporters weren't permitted to talk to the audience, the St. Petersburg Times reported. When reporters tried to leave the designated press area and head to where the crowd was seated, an escort would dart out and turn the person around, Times staff writer Eileen Schulte wrote on the paper's Web site.
Democrats on Sunday had denounced Palin's charge and warned that it would trigger reexaminations of McCain's past.
"If we are going to go down this road, you know, Barack Obama was eight years old, somehow responsible for Bill Ayers," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a Chicago Democrat and Obama supporter. "At 58, John McCain was associating with Charles Keating."
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."
Obama, in a speech Sunday in North Carolina, a Republican-leaning state where polls show him within striking distance of McCain, said his opponent and his aides "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."
McCain has been hurt badly by his ties to President George W. Bush, a fellow Republican whose approval rating is near historic lows as American voters blame him for the crumbling economy and the unpopular Iraq war.