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A newly strident tone in the din

Times Staff Writer

Barack Obama’s campaign was nearly swamped this spring when his pastor’s inflammatory sermons were widely publicized. He averted disaster and has so far avoided damage from ties to 1960s radical William Ayers and disgraced fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko.

But now John McCain, trailing in the polls, is reviving questions about Obama’s past.

Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin has brought up the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and Monday she repeated her accusation that the Democratic nominee had befriended terrorists, while McCain asked, “Who is the real Barack Obama?”

Both campaigns have long planned for this newly negative moment, but with the world embroiled in an economic meltdown, the script is taking unexpected turns -- and the old lines of attack could fall flat.

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Rather than command public attention, as the Wright controversy did, the debate over Obama’s past is being overshadowed by the loss of thousands of jobs every day and a steep decline in the stock market. With voters overwhelmed by major news events, character attacks can easily be lost in the din.

But McCain and Palin have drawn attention to them by raising the charges against Obama themselves in unusually strident terms, a move that runs the risk of turning off undecided voters or sounding discordant in a time of public unease.

“The question is, can you reintroduce character in the last 30 days of the campaign and tie it to the current economic crisis?” said Chris LaCivita, who is advising a conservative group that has aired ads in several states attacking the Obama-Ayers connection.

Obama is leaving little to chance. On Monday, he answered McCain, unleashing a major effort to remind voters of McCain’s association with the Keating Five banking scandal, a chapter the campaign is trying to tie to the current financial disaster. Obama’s camp also escalated its effort to question McCain’s temperament, with a new TV ad calling him “erratic.”

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For all of their careful planning, neither side could possibly have predicted that they would be waging the final four weeks of the campaign amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

It is a particular challenge for Republicans, who acknowledge that Obama has gained ground at a time that voters appear to trust him more than McCain to fix the economy and are blaming many of the troubles on President Bush.

And new polls released Monday showed fewer signs of hope for McCain, with Obama retaining a lead nationally and in several key battlegrounds.

Strategists believe the charges flying back and forth in the 2008 campaign must be tethered to the economic anxiety to have any resonance.

Even if McCain manages to tap into public uncertainty about Obama’s past, it is the fears of financial meltdown that are likely to decide “whether the doubts that are raised make a damn bit of difference to voters,” said one GOP strategist, who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly about internal party deliberations.

McCain indicated Monday at a rally in Albuquerque that he would try to make that connection himself -- delivering an unusually biting speech in which he argued that voters risked putting the nation’s economy in the hands of someone with a murky past.

“For a guy who’s already authored two memoirs, he’s not exactly an open book,” McCain said. “All people want to know is: What has this man ever actually accomplished in government? What does he plan for America? In short, who is the real Barack Obama?”

Pointing to the financial crisis and other dangers facing America, McCain added a dig at his opponent that seemed designed to highlight Obama’s unusual background, including a childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii: “I didn’t just show up out of nowhere. After all, America knows me; you know my strengths and my faults; you know my story and my convictions.”

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Palin, meantime, has taken the lead in delivering the most zealous attacks on Obama’s character. Over the weekend, she accused him of “palling around with terrorists,” referring to Ayers, a founder of the radical Weather Underground.

On Monday, a pro-McCain columnist quoted her questioning why Obama’s ties with Wright were not being discussed more, “because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that -- with, I don’t know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he didn’t get up and leave -- to me, that does say something about character.”

Obama cut off ties with Wright earlier this year and quit his membership at Trinity United Church of Christ, where he had worshiped for two decades with Wright, whom he has credited with helping him become a Christian.

The Illinois senator has denied having strong ties with Ayers, whose group was connected with several bombings during the Vietnam War era. Obama has denounced the tactics and Ayers’ views.

In response to McCain’s attacks, the Obama campaign posted a new website dedicated to the Keating scandal, as campaign manager David Plouffe e-mailed millions of supporters an announcement titled, “What they don’t want to talk about.”

“McCain’s Keating history is relevant, and voters deserve to know the facts -- and see for themselves the pattern of poor judgment by John McCain,” Plouffe wrote.

The website -- which includes a https:// -- clearly had been in the works for some time. The video features former bank regulator William K. Black, who met with McCain and four other senators in 1987 at the request of Lincoln Savings & Loan owner Charles H. Keating Jr., and subsequently became one of the Arizona senator’s fiercest critics.

It is unclear whether any of this will register with voters.

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Two new surveys published Monday suggest voters might be open to learning new information about the candidates.

A Washington Post-ABC poll found that nearly 1 in 5 voters surveyed in Ohio might change their allegiance before election day. And a new nationwide Wall Street Journal-NBC survey indicated that 35% of registered voters were “bothered” by Obama’s ties to figures like Wright.

But more than half in that national poll said they were bothered that McCain had former lobbyists for big corporations working on his campaign.

That finding suggests that 2008 is indeed far different than other recent elections in which Republicans, dominating news coverage in an otherwise calm period, successfully targeted the Democratic nominee’s character.

In 1988, Michael S. Dukakis was portrayed as weak in ads featuring murderer Willie Horton, who raped a woman after he failed to return from a weekend furlough. In 2004, it was the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a conservative-backed group that drew widespread coverage for months as it accused John F. Kerry of distorting his war-hero record.

“We were completely in the clear, and pretty much the same was true with the Swift Boats,” said Floyd Brown, a Republican ad maker who designed the Willie Horton campaign and has been producing Internet ads targeting Obama’s past. “The McCain campaign does not have that right now.”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

Times staff writers Seema Mehta in Albuquerque; Michael Finnegan in Asheville, N.C.; and Noam N. Levey in Washington contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Obama’s connection to a former radical

The issue: Barack Obama is acquainted with William Ayers, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who in 1969 co-founded the radical Weather Underground and helped plant bombs, including one at the U.S. Capitol. After spending the 1970s on the run, he turned himself in. Federal prosecutors later dropped charges because of illegal surveillance and other misconduct.

Ayers, 63, is an education professor who has worked to improve Chicago schools and counts Mayor Richard M. Daley among his defenders.

Obama was a child when the Weather Underground was active; he and Ayers became acquainted in 1995. That year, as Obama embarked on his first Illinois state Senate run, Ayers and his wife, Weather Underground co-founder Bernardine Dohrn, hosted a house party to introduce him to Democrats. Ayers later gave Obama a $200 campaign donation. They served on two philanthropic boards together.

Obama has described Ayers as a “guy” he knows from his neighborhood and someone with whom he served on boards, but not one of his advisors.

Why the McCain campaign says it matters: Obama’s decision to associate with Ayers raises questions about his judgment. McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, has said that Obama is someone who would “pal around with terrorists,” and that Obama “sees America as imperfect enough to work with a former domestic terrorist who targeted his own country.”

Why the Obama campaign says it doesn’t matter: Obama is not close to Ayers. McCain is focusing on Ayers “to cover up McCain’s erratic response to the most urgent economic crisis facing our nation since the Great Depression,” said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt.

Source: Dan Morain, Times staff writer

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McCain’s ties to a convicted S&L; owner

The issue: Probably the biggest political embarrassment of John McCain’s career emanated from his close ties to Charles H. Keating Jr., the high-flying owner of Lincoln Savings & Loan who later went to federal prison.

Lincoln’s failure would ultimately cost taxpayers $3.4 billion, the most expensive rescue of the S&L; crisis in the late 1980s.

Two years before Lincoln went under, McCain and four other senators, at Keating’s request, pressured bank regulators at two meetings to ease up their investigation of the thrift. A subsequent Senate Ethics Committee investigation of the meetings concluded that McCain had been guilty of only “poor judgment.” He did not do as much for Keating as other senators, the panel found.

But of the five senators, McCain was closest to Keating, a Phoenix businessman. In addition to accepting more than $150,000 in campaign contributions from Keating and his associates, McCain and his wife had vacationed at Keating’s Bahamas retreat and repeatedly flown on his jet. (McCain subsequently repaid the cost of the travel.) Cindy McCain and her family were also investors with Keating in a shopping mall developed by one of Keating’s companies.

And in the years preceding the meetings, McCain had fought against tougher regulation of the S&L; banking sector, a key priority of Keating’s.

Why the Obama campaign says it matters: McCain’s position against regulation on behalf of a political donor is relevant to assessing how he might handle the current financial crisis.

Why the McCain campaign says it doesn’t: McCain, who subsequently said he regretted his behavior, was never found to have violated any laws or Senate rules.

Source: Noam N. Levey, Times staff writer


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