Barack Obama is expected to hit back aggressively against John McCain on Monday after the Republican gave the go-ahead to a fresh wave of attacks against the Illinois senator’s character and patriotism as the Democrat consolidates his lead in the presidential race.
By Andrew Ward in Washington
A new Obama TV advertisement, previewed over the weekend, will brand Mr McCain as “erratic in a crisis” and accuse him of “dishonourable” smear tactics aimed at distracting from the financial crisis.
The commercial came after Sarah Palin, Mr McCain’s running mate, attacked Mr Obama for his association with a leftist radical whose group bombed the Pentagon and the US Capitol building in the 1970s.
In what amounted to the McCain campaign’s most direct assault on Mr Obama’s patriotism to date, Ms Palin said the senator’s ties to Bill Ayers, founder of the Weather Underground Organization, suggested he did not view the US as a force for good. “This is not a man who sees America as you see America and as I see America,” she told supporters in Colorado on Saturday. “Our opponent is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.”
Mr Obama’s relationship with Mr Ayers, now an academic and community activist in Chicago, has long been a source of controversy, but Ms Palin’s comments are most explicit attempt yet to turn it into an election issue.
The Obama campaign accused Ms Palin of dragging the campaign into the gutter with “desperate and false” smears. “What’s clear is that John McCain and Sarah Palin would rather spend their time tearing down Barack Obama than laying out a plan to build up our economy,” said Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan.
By hitting back forcefully, Mr Obama is hoping to avoid a repeat of the Democratic debacle in 2004, when John Kerry, the party’s candidate then, was slow to respond to the Republicans’ “swiftboat” attacks on his war record.
The new Obama advertisement says: “Three quarters of a million jobs lost this year. Our financial system in turmoil. And John McCain? Erratic in a crisis. Out of touch on the economy. No wonder his campaign wants to change the subject.”
The “erratic” charge is loaded with innuendo because Mr McCain has been dogged by questions about his temperament as he spent five and half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Critics have used his surprise choice of Ms Palin as running mate and his widely criticised intervention in the financial bail-out talks to raise fresh concerns about his impulsive nature.
Recent national opinion polls show Mr Obama leading by an average of about 6 percentage points and opening up an advantage in several key swing states.
McCain officials said they intend to aggressively highlight Mr Obama’s liberal record and his ties to controversial figures in Chicago politics as they try to change the dynamic of the race a month before polling day. “We’re looking to turn the page on this financial crisis and get back to discussing…how [Obama] will be too risky for Americans,” said Greg Strimple, a senior McCain adviser.
Ms Palin was unapologetic about the new line of attack. “There is a time when it’s necessary to take the gloves off and that time is right now,” she said. Mr Ayers spent much of the 1970s in hiding after his group conducted a wave of bombings against government buildings in protest against the Vietnam war.
Ms Palin’s comments were prompted by a New York Times investigation published on Saturday that claimed Mr Obama had “played down” his links to Mr Ayers. But the story concluded that the men were not close and noted that Mr Obama had condemned Mr Ayers’ terrorist activities as “despicable”.
The McCain campaign has so far refrained from reviving the racially charged controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright, Mr Obama’s outspoken former pastor, but officials believe his ties to Mr Ayers and to Tony Rezko, a former Obama donor and convicted money launderer, raise legitimate questions about his character and ideology.
Mr McCain faces rising pressure from Republicans to fight more aggressively as the election has appeared to start slipping away. Many Democrats believe Republicans are trying to fan racial prejudice by portraying Mr Obama as “un-American” and not trustworthy.