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Rivals take aim with sharpened messages

Times Staff Writer

Egged on by a surly crowd, John McCain and Sarah Palin delivered a stark condemnation of Barack Obama’s policies and character Wednesday, casting him as an unreliable choice for president.

The edgy tone of the rally here was set even before the duo arrived onstage, when local Republican official William Platt warmed up the audience by twice referring to the Democratic nominee as “Barack Hussein Obama.”

It was the second time this week that speakers at McCain-Palin events had invoked Obama’s middle name, a practice critics contend is meant to peddle the false notion that Obama is Muslim. He is Christian.

The McCain campaign issued a statement Wednesday saying that it did not “condone this inappropriate rhetoric.”

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Speaking before more than 6,600 people at Lehigh University, McCain dismissed Obama as an unworthy rival with dubious ethics.

“Rather than answer his critics, Sen. Obama will try to distract you from noticing that he never answers the serious and legitimate questions he has been asked,” McCain said. “He’s even questioned my truthfulness. And 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.”

The crowd jeered when Obama’s name was mentioned. People crowded into the gymnasium yelled out, “He’s a radical!” and, in a play on his name, “Abomination!”

McCain made a verbal flub during his speech. After laying out his policy goals, he said: “This is the agenda I have set before my fellow prisoners.”

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According to the text of the speech released by his campaign, the word was supposed to be “citizens,” not “prisoners.”

A skirmish played out in the balcony behind the stage. A protester tried to display an anti-McCain sign (“McCain: Old, Angry, Dishonest”), but someone ripped it out of his hands. Police then escorted the protester out of the building.

McCain and Palin later flew to Ohio, a crucial battleground where polls show McCain is faltering. Perhaps hoping a little gridiron celebrity would rub off, the Republicans were introduced at a gym in Strongsville by a local hero, Cleveland Browns football player Brady Quinn.

Young women squealed as the handsome backup quarterback took the stage, about 20 miles south of where the Browns play. He whipped them up with a “dawg pound” fist pump.

“This is a man who endured great adversity yet remained loyal to this nation,” Quinn said.

“We need heroes like this,” he added.

The crowd roared. But the mood turned angry when McCain and Palin spooled out the arguments against Obama they had made earlier in the day in Pennsylvania.

“Liar!” someone yelled, in reference to the Democratic nominee.

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In their two campaign stops, neither McCain nor Palin mentioned Obama’s past association with William Ayers, the 1960s-era radical Weather Underground founder.

But in an interview with Fox News, Palin cited Ayers as reason to question Obama’s “judgment.”

Palin told Fox’s Sean Hannity, in a transcript provided by the network: “And -- not only those terrorist activities that Bill Ayers was involved in, but the questions need to be asked, I believe, when did Barack Obama know of these activities? We’ve heard so many confliction stories and flip-flop answers about when he knew the guy, did he realize that he knocked off his political career in the guy’s living room?”

A recent article about Ayers in the New York Times said the two men were not close.

With the race winding down and McCain trailing in the polls, the Republican ticket has gotten more personal in its attacks. An independent study by the Wisconsin Advertising Project showed that in the week of Sept. 28 to Oct. 4, nearly all of the McCain campaign’s ads were negative. In contrast, the group rated 34% of Obama’s ads during that time frame as negative.

McCain’s advisors said that the criticism of Obama is legitimate and that their candidate is merely raising questions about whether someone so new to the national scene should be elevated to the White House.

McCain’s message was that Obama would be a poor choice for president on two fronts: His policies are wrong, and his word is suspect.

“We have all heard what he has said, but it is less clear what he has done or what he will do,” McCain said in Pennsylvania.

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At that, the crowd broke into a chant of “No-Bama! No-Bama!”

McCain continued: “You know, what Sen. Obama says today and what he has done in the past are often two different things.”

He said that Obama had once called the subprime loans that have fueled the housing foreclosure crisis “a good idea.”

“Well, Sen. Obama,” McCain said, “that ‘good idea’ has now plunged this country into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

The context of Obama’s quote suggests a different meaning. According to a transcript of a speech Obama gave in September 2007, he said subprime loans “started off as a good idea” -- helping make home ownership more affordable. But lenders, mortgage brokers and appraisers then abused the system in search of higher profits, he went on to say.

More frequently, some of the harshest attacks are coming from Palin. It was at a Palin rally Monday in Florida that Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott invoked Obama’s middle name while making introductory remarks.

A Palin spokeswoman later called the comment “inappropriate.”

Palin remains enormously popular on the campaign trail and got a raucous reception in Bethlehem, Pa.

“Sarah’s hot!” one person shouted as she spoke here.

“Now what does that have to do with anything?” she parried.

Confronting voters, she said, is a choice between “a guy who’s just gonna try to talk his way into the White House and an American hero who has served his country with courage and with honor.”

The crowd chanted its approval of the GOP’s newest star: “Sarah! Sarah! Sarah!”

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com


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