After a week of increasingly nasty rallies in which John McCain and Sarah Palin hammered Democratic rival Barack Obama over his "association" with a 1960s-era radical, the Republican candidates changed tactics Saturday during campaign swings through two presidential battleground states. Palin launched a new front in the culture wars here, attacking Obama on abortion, while in Iowa, McCain concentrated on a critique of Obama's spending proposals.
Emotions -- particularly anger -- have been running high at GOP gatherings. During a town hall Friday in Minnesota, a woman referred to Obama as an Arab, leading McCain to correct the misperception and defend his opponent as a "decent . . . family man."
On a day when an important civil rights figure condemned the tone of the McCain campaign, Palin seemed to acknowledge the nastiness. After chastising Obama for "unconditional support for unlimited abortions," she said at a rally in this heavily Catholic, socially conservative Democratic stronghold that "Americans need to see his record for what it is. And please: It is not negative, it is not mean-spirited, to talk to about his record."
When Obama was an Illinois state senator, she said, he opposed proposals to outlaw what critics refer to as "partial-birth abortion." She invoked two antiabortion Catholic Democrats -- the late New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the late Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey -- in an attempt to characterize Obama's views as extreme.
Moynihan, Palin said, "described partial-birth abortion as 'too close to infanticide.' Sen. Obama thinks it's a constitutional right, but he is wrong."
Senior Obama advisor Anita Dunn said Palin's comments "show that . . . the right to choose hangs in the balance."
Meanwhile in Iowa, McCain advocated for his tax cuts and his plan to balance the budget by "the end of my term in office." He offered a scathing critique of the price tag of Obama's spending proposals and accused him of being vague.
"We've all heard what he's said, but it's less clear what he's done or what he will do," McCain told a crowd of more than 1,000 in Davenport. "Rather than answer his critics, Sen. Obama will try to distract. . . . He has even questioned my truthfulness -- and let me reply in the plainest terms I know: I don't need lessons about telling the truth to the 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 as the crowd responded with a roar.
Before McCain spoke, a Christian pastor offered a prayer that seemed to ask for divine intervention on his behalf. "There are millions of people around this world praying to their God -- whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah -- that [McCain's] opponent wins for a variety of reasons," Pastor Arnold Conrad said. "And, Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they're going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens."
The McCain campaign said it did not condone the prayer.
"While we understand the important role that faith plays in informing the votes of Iowans, questions about the religious background of the candidates only serve to distract from the real questions in this race about Barack Obama's judgment, policies and readiness to lead as commander in chief," Wendy Riemann, McCain's Iowa spokeswoman, said.
'Playing with fire'
The campaign earlier had called Obama's judgment into question by invoking his interactions with William Ayers, a founder of the violent Weather Underground. The onetime radical, now an education professor, has served on two charitable boards with Obama and hosted a fundraiser for him early in his political career.
On Saturday, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a central figure in the civil rights movement, accused McCain of poisoning the political atmosphere, comparing him to former Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, a proponent of racial segregation.
"He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who only desired to exercise their constitutional rights," wrote Lewis, who is black. "As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all. . . . The American people deserve better."
At a campaign forum in August, McCain named Lewis as one of the three people he would rely on most in his administration. On Saturday, he said, "I am saddened that John Lewis, a man I've always admired, would make such a brazen and baseless attack on my character and the character of the thousands of hardworking Americans who come to our events to cheer for the kind of reform that will put America on the right track."
Abcarian reported from Pennsylvania and Reston from Iowa.