John McCain cautioned his own supporters Friday that they needed to be “respectful” toward Barack Obama, an attempt to tamp down the increasingly nasty outbursts at his rallies as the Republican ticket slips in the polls.
McCain and running mate Sarah Palin have been under mounting pressure to denounce the venomous attacks on Obama at their events. Videos posted on the Web have captured raw displays of emotion, and the media have focused on the seething anger of the crowds.
On Friday, Obama accused his opponents of inflaming their supporters.
“It’s easy to rile up a crowd -- nothing easier than riling up a crowd by stoking anger and division -- but that’s not what we need,” he said at a rally in Chillicothe, Ohio. “The American people aren’t looking for someone who can divide this country; they’re looking for somebody who will lead this country.”
McCain’s town hall event in Lakeville, south of Minneapolis, morphed into an unusual exchange between a crowd openly hostile to an Obama presidency and a candidate who seems conflicted about the visceral emotion the race has unleashed.
The Arizona senator alternately provoked and admonished the crowd, giving the hourlong event a seesaw feel. Even as McCain called for more civility, he went out of his way to invoke Obama’s past association with a former member of the radical 1960s-era Weather Underground. And McCain’s campaign launched an ad Friday centered on those ties.
In question after question, supporters took the microphone and urged McCain to aggressively confront Obama on Wednesday at the final presidential debate, warning of disastrous consequences if the Democratic nominee wins in November.
McCain vowed to fight. But he also sought to quell the audience’s ire. When McCain said, “I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments,” the crowd booed.
The candidate quickly interjected: “No, no. I want everyone to be respectful.” With special emphasis, he added: “And let’s make sure we are.”
Even prominent Republicans have questioned the McCain campaign’s recent tone. On Friday, a Michigan newspaper reported that some of that state’s Republican politicians were upset with the campaign, including William Milliken, a former governor.
“I’m disappointed in the tenor and the personal attacks on the part of the McCain campaign,” Milliken told the Grand Rapids Press.
McCain’s appeal for respect capped an edgy week on the campaign trail. With growing frequency, crowds at McCain-Palin rallies are angrily taunting Obama. Mentions of his name have touched off cries of “liar” and “traitor.”
Appearing in Colorado last week, Palin suggested that Obama was “palling around with terrorists,” invoking Obama’s connection to William Ayers.
Ayers, a founder of the violent Weather Underground, is now an education professor involved in school reform in Chicago. He introduced Obama at a political event at his home in the mid-1990s. The two have served together on a pair of nonprofit boards but are not close, and Obama has denounced the Weather Underground’s bombings as “detestable.”
Twice this week at rallies, supporters who introduced the candidates mentioned the Democratic nominee’s middle name: Hussein. Critics contend that is done to suggest that Obama, a Christian, is Muslim. The McCain campaign released a statement saying, “We do not condone this inappropriate rhetoric.”
McCain got an ample dose of anti-Obama sentiment Friday in Minnesota. Standing a few feet from him, a woman said: “I can’t trust Obama. He’s an Arab.”
McCain shook his head.
“No, ma’am. No, ma’am. He’s not,” McCain said. “He’s a decent family man -- citizen -- that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
The pressure on McCain to quiet things down puts him in an awkward spot: He needs his supporters to be energized, but as a self-styled bipartisan reformer, he can’t be seen as inciting voters.
This is especially difficult to pull off because the Republicans, recognizing that voters trust Obama more on the economy, have decided to question his character. Ayers has become their principal line of attack. Their argument that Obama once consorted with a former terrorist is a troubling idea for a nation whose memories of Sept. 11 are still fresh.
One man here urged McCain to play up Obama’s “gamy associations; some of the associations that have rally marred Obama’s life.”
He did not mention Ayers, but McCain did. McCain said Obama had not been truthful about his relationship with Ayers, whom he called an “unrepentant terrorist.”
“I don’t care about old washed-up terrorists,” he said. “What we do care about is people telling the truth about their association with these individuals.”
He continued: “Sen. Obama said that Mr. Ayers was a guy in the neighborhood, when in reality Sen. Obama’s political career was launched in Mr. Ayers’ living room. And they had a long association with it, and that’s just a fact. And we’ll be talking about that more.”
Yet McCain also tried to reassure a supporter who said he was frightened by Obama’s ties to Ayers.
The man said he and his wife are expecting a baby in April. “And frankly,” he told McCain, “we’re scared. We’re scared of an Obama presidency. . . . I’m concerned about someone who [consorts] with domestic terrorists such as Ayers.” He went on to say he worried about whom Obama would pick as Supreme Court justices.
McCain replied that Obama was “a decent person and a person that you don’t have to be scared as president of the United States.”
Still, his campaign is making Ayers more of a focus.
McCain put out an ad Friday that opens: “When convenient, Obama worked with terrorist Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied.”
At the same time, the Republican National Committee released an ad called, “Chicago Way.” It begins: “Shady politics. That’s Barack Obama’s training.” It describes Ayers as a terrorist group leader who would later host a kind of coming-out party for Obama as the latter’s political career was getting started.
The financial crisis was largely an afterthought Friday, but both candidates sought to address the nation’s economic woes, marked in recent days by a stock market plunge.
McCain came out with a plan to suspend the rules so that people who are 70 1/2 years old don’t have to begin selling off stock in their 401(k) retirement plans. The proposal is meant to ensure that senior citizens don’t suffer losses in a bear market.
Obama, meantime, called for a rescue plan for small businesses that are struggling to meet payroll because access to credit has dried up amid the economic turmoil.
Noting that small businesses employ half of the workers in the private sector and create the majority of new jobs, Obama said the federal government must provide a lifeline.
“If we don’t act, we’re going to be looking at scaled-back operations, shuttered shops, laid-off workers. That hurts everyone,” Obama told 5,000 supporters in Chillicothe. “That’s why we need a small-business rescue plan so we are extending our hands to the shops and restaurants, the start-ups and the small firms that create jobs and make our economy grow.”
Obama called on the Small Business Administration to make direct loans to small businesses that can not secure capital elsewhere, as the agency did after Sept. 11. The agency would offer affordable, fixed-rate loans to pay for operating expenses, short-term investments or refinance debt out of its disaster loan program.
Nicholas reported from LaCrosse, Wis., and Lakeville, Minn.; Mehta from Chillicothe and Columbus, Ohio.