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McCain and Obama campaigns go negative in home stretch

With a month to Election Day, the presidential candidates go after unsavory connections in each other’s past.

By Staff writer / October 6, 2008

On Monday, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin criticized Obama’s ties to ’60s radical William Ayers in Clearwater, Fla.

CHRIS O’MEARA/AP

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Now it’s getting ugly.

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As the campaign heads into the home stretch with Democrat Barack Obama pulling ahead into a solid lead, the candidates are going after each other’s character with attacks over unsavory figures in each man’s past.

Republican John McCain is attacking Senator Obama on his connection to former anti-Vietnam War radical William Ayers and convicted influence-peddler Antoin “Tony” Rezko. But Obama isn’t responding by just explaining (again) his relationship with both men – which he has long played down. He is going after the GOP nominee on an episode that Senator McCain has called worse than his 5-1/2 years in a Hanoi prison: the Keating Five banking scandal.

Out of this food fight, one point is clear. Politics as usual, which both candidates once swore off, is back.

In the short run, McCain might gain from the tactic. He has shifted the issue terrain from the toxic economy – unquestionably bad for McCain, whose party controls the White House and who has seen his presidential hopes slip badly in the last three weeks – to one of character.

The question is, how long can McCain play this card? And can he really keep the economy from killing his electoral chances? On Monday morning, as the credit crisis rippled globally, the Dow Jones Industrial Average sank below 10000 for the first time since 2004.

“I do think the Democrats want the election to be completely about the economy, but I think they learned a lesson over the past few presidential elections, and that is, if they ignore attacks, those attacks will be believed,” says Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan political newsletter. “So I think they have to respond to get it back to the economy.”

Obama responds in kind

But Obama is responding not with a full-throated defense of his past connections to Mr. Ayers and Mr. Rezko, but by bringing up Charles Keating, the savings-and-loan operator whom McCain was accused of helping inappropriately back in the late 1980s.

What Obama is trying to do, says Mr. Rothenberg, is neutralize the character issue, so that voters will conclude that neither candidate is perfect and vote on the economy.

In the process, the Obama campaign appears to be hoping that swing voters – many of whom pay casual attention to politics – know little about Mr. Keating and will be disturbed by the story.

The Obama campaign has set up a website dedicated to the Keating scandal, www.keatingeconomics.com, and at noon Eastern time on Monday was to release a 13-minute documentary on the subject.

The McCain campaign, for its part, has made clear that vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin will play the traditional running mate role of attack dog. Over the weekend, in campaign appearances, she accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists” – a reference to his connection to Ayers, a founder of the radical Weather Underground group in the 1960s.

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