Now it’s getting ugly.
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.
Numerous newspaper articles have noted that Obama’s connection to Ayers is small, and that he has denounced Ayers’s radical acts. Ayers, too, has renounced his past, and is now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He did hold a fundraiser for Obama in the 1990s, early in the senator’s political career, and the two served on a charity board together, but by all appearances, the men are not close.
The McCain campaign also plans to use Obama’s connection to convicted felon Rezko in another character attack. Rezko was involved in helping Obama purchase his Chicago home, a move that Obama has since called “boneheaded.”
Rezko’s conviction for corruption is not related to the Obama home purchase, but the McCain campaign can look forward to Rezko’s sentencing on Oct. 28 – just days before the Nov. 4 election – as a hook to go after Obama’s character again.
Then there’s the issue of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor, who was renounced by the Illinois senator for his outrageous comments. McCain has said he won’t use the Wright issue against Obama, but Ms. Palin spoke about Wright in an interview with The New York Times published Monday.
“I don’t know why that association isn’t discussed more, because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country,” Palin said.
McCain camp signaled shift
Late last week, the McCain campaign had telegraphed that the mud was about to fly, allowing the Obama campaign to prepare and respond in kind.
On Sunday, Obama released an ad on the economic crisis that attacked McCain as “erratic” in his approach.
Speaking Sunday in Asheville, N.C., Obama blamed McCain for going negative. McCain’s strategists “are gambling that he can distract you with smears rather than talk to you about substance,” Obama said, according to the Associated Press.
Over the weekend and into Monday, the McCain campaign faced criticism by fellow Republicans over its strategy. Karl Rove, the architect of President Bush’s two electoral victories, wondered out loud why the McCain team had announced in advance that it was going to unload with attacks on Obama’s character.
“Some of the best strategies are the strategies you don’t call attention to,” said Mr. Rove. He added that, as of Sunday, Obama had leads in enough states to win the election.
On his map, Obama has 273 electoral votes, three more than needed to win. The seven tossup states he listed – Nevada, Florida, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, and North Carolina – were all won by Bush four years ago, which is bad news for McCain.
Speaking Monday morning on MSNBC, former McCain adviser Mike Murphy was also blunt about McCain’s prospects. “I think he’s losing, which is why he needs a big change-up in his strategy,” Mr. Murphy said.