Presidential candidate Barack Obama on Friday accused Republican John McCain of trying to divide the country, but he let fellow Democrats handle harsher attacks while he kept his message mostly upbeat.
Speaking to an outdoor audience, Obama said "it's not hard to rile up a crowd by stoking anger and division." He said Americans want "someone who can lead this country" with a steady hand in a time of economic crisis, not divide it.
Echoing McCain's "country first" motto, Obama said, "Now more than ever it is time to put country ahead of politics."
Polls show Obama leading McCain in Ohio and several other battleground states, and he seems eager to keep his campaign on a steady, non-controversial course. As he has done for days, Obama criticized McCain's economic plans and urged Americans to stay calm and confident amid the dramatic drop in the stock market.
The Illinois senator again did not mention McCain's attacks for associating with a former 1960s radical, William Ayers. When asked on a radio talk show, however, Obama said he thought Ayers, now a college professor and neighbor in Chicago with whom he worked on community projects several years ago, was rehabilitated.
Two high-profile supporters took sharper jabs at McCain before Obama came on stage on a sunny, cool day in front of the Ross County Courthouse.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland told the crowd, "The McCain-Palin campaign and some of their followers unfortunately want you to be afraid of Barack Obama."
Ohio's gun owners, Strickland said, "have nothing to fear from Barack Obama." Nor do people who revere "family and faith," he said, calling Obama "a strong Christian, family man."
Internet rumors have falsely claimed that Obama is a Muslim.
Meanwhile, McCain, trailing in polls and searching for a way to gain ground, assailed Obama on Friday in a sharply worded TV ad that said: "When convenient, he worked with terrorist Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied."
It's McCain's toughest commercial yet using Obama's association with Ayers, a Chicago college professor who was an anti-Vietnam war radical in the 1960s, to assert that Obama has "blind ambition" and "bad judgment," and, thus, can't be trusted during an economic catastrophe. "In crisis, we need leadership" — the ad says and implies that Obama doesn't offer any.
With little more than three weeks before the election, the GOP presidential candidate is seeking to turn his campaign around by steadily escalating his attacks on his Democratic foe and raising questions about his associations with Ayers, who in 1969 helped found the violent Weather Underground group blamed for bombing government buildings in the early 1970s
The Associated Press and other news organizations have reported that Obama and Ayers are not close but that they live in the same Chicago neighborhood and worked together on two nonprofit organization boards from the mid-1990s to 2002. Ayers also hosted a small meet-the-candidate event for Obama in 1995 as he first ran for the state Senate.
The McCain campaign is also attempting to pre-empt a report due to be released Friday that looks into allegations that running mate Sarah Palin abused her power as governor of Alaska by firing the state's public safety commissioner.
The McCain-Palin camp has already released its own report, which says public filings and an affidavit from Palin's husband clear the governor of wrongdoing.
Obama has denounced Ayers' acts, views
During the campaign, Obama has denounced Ayers' radical actions and views.
In an interview with Philadelphia-based radio talk show host Michael Smerconish, Obama said Thursday that when he met Ayers in the mid-1990s Ayers was teaching education the University of Illinois.
"I was sitting on this board with a whole bunch conservative businessmen and civic leaders and he was one of the people who was on this board," Obama said of the Annenberg Challenge, a nonprofit educational group. "Ultimately I ended up learning about the fact that he had engaged in this reprehensible act 40 years ago, but I was eight years old at the time and I assumed that he had been rehabilitated."
In response, McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds asked: "Does Barack Obama continue to believe William Ayers has been 'rehabilitated'? Or has Barack Obama changed his mind now that William Ayers is a liability, rather than an asset, to his political ambition?"
During a Democratic primary debate in April, Obama called Ayers "a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis."
To back up its claim that Obama lied about his relationship, McCain's campaign juxtaposed that debate comment with a CNN report in which a reporter asserted that "the relationship between Obama and Ayers went much deeper, ran much longer, and was much more political than Obama said."
But McCain's campaign provided no other evidence that Obama "lied."
Obama suggested McCain's attacks were motivated by his falling poll numbers: "I know my opponent is worried about his campaign. But that's not what I'm concerned about. I'm thinking about the Americans losing their jobs, and their homes, and their life savings."
Polls show the Democrat is pushing ahead in key battleground states as stock markets plunge and economic crisis grips the country. This has created even steeper political challenges for Republicans who have held the White House for the past eight years.
Obama's campaign issued a statement Thursday that said: "It's now clear that John McCain would rather launch angry, personal attacks than talk about the economy or defend his risky bailout scheme that hands over billions in taxpayer dollars to the same irresponsible Wall Street banks and lenders that got us into this mess, a scheme that guarantees taxpayers will lose money."
Speaking at the start of a two-day bus tour through swing-state Ohio on Thursday, Obama took a similar line. He declared McCain's plan for the U.S. government to buy up $300 billion worth of sour home mortgages and re-negotiate them at lower interest rates would force the government to absorb the full cost of the bad mortgages and let lenders off the hook for questionable practices.
McCain put forward the mortgage rescue idea Tuesday night during the second presidential debate.
Obama has charged that McCain was "erratic" in his response to the economic crisis and voters, polls show, seem to agree. Obama has expanded his lead in the Gallup Poll daily tracking survey to 11 points, 51-41. And several polling organizations now put McCain even or behind in must-win states captured by Bush in 2000 and 2004 that are key to a Republican win.
The veteran Arizona senator, who said last year that he was not as well versed on economic issues as he would like, has offered a variety of messages since the U.S. economic crisis began. At first, he responded by saying the country's fundamentals were strong. He then said he was putting his campaign on hold and wanted to delay the first presidential debate with Obama to deal with the unfolding financial meltdown.
On Friday, McCain proposed a plan that would suspend mandatory sale of stocks in retirement funds.
McCain said his economic plan would spare investors who have to start selling off their retirement accounts at age 70 and a half. As the economy struggles and Wall Street plunges, the value of these accounts have tanked.
Obama's cause also has been helped by his hefty advertising budget. On Thursday, his campaign announced that Obama has scheduled a half-hour commercial for prime time national television on Oct. 29, six days before Election Day.
Over the past week, McCain's campaign resurrected Ayers and other associations of Obama's that were first raised during the Democratic primaries. McCain's advisers have signaled that they believe the 72-year-old four-term Arizona senator's best chance to win rests with stoking voter unease about the 47-year-old first-term Illinois senator who would be the country's first black president.
The new ad, which the campaign says will run nationally, comes the same day the Republican National Committee begins running its own TV commercial in Indiana and Wisconsin that also seeks to sow doubts about Obama's political upbringing. That spot links Obama to Ayers and other Chicago figures. "The Chicago Way. Shady politics. That's Barack Obama's training," the ad says.
McCain himself stepped up this line of attack on Thursday, telling voters in Wisconsin that the Democrat's association with Ayers raises questions about his honesty and asserting that Obama had not been truthful in describing the relationship.
We need to know the full extent of the relationship," McCain said and later told ABC News: "It's a factor about Sen. Obama's candor and truthfulness with the American people."
McCain on Friday was holding a rally in Wisconsin, and Obama was continuing his stops in key swing state Ohio. Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, was campaigning in Missouri. Palin had no public appearances scheduled Friday.