Over the weekend, McCain aides served notice to the media that they would begin an intensive assault on the character and judgment of Democratic candidate Barack Obama—a strategy that is expected to continue through tomorrow night's presidential debate and right through to Election Day. McCain aides say GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's critique of Obama last weekend for "palling around with terrorists" marked the start of their final offensive.
It's all part of McCain's effort to change the subject of the national debate from the economy, which is considered a winning issue for Obama, and focus on other issues that may hold more potential for McCain. The GOP nominee has been falling behind Obama in both national opinion polls and in state-by-state surveys in key battlegrounds such as Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
Obama's campaign responded fiercely. It not only denounced Palin's accusation as a false "smear" but came up with another line of attack against McCain, resurrecting the Arizona senator's connections to businessman Charles Keating and the savings and loan scandal from the 1980s. McCain participated in meetings with banking regulators on behalf of Keating, a friend and campaign donor who owned a savings and loan. Keating was later convicted of securities fraud. The Senate Ethics Committee criticized McCain for "poor judgment" in the affair.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffe sent out an E-mail to supporters last night—which was passed along this morning to reporters by the campaign—that said, "It's not just McCain's role in the current crisis that they're avoiding. The backward economic philosophy and culture of corruption that helped create the current crisis are looking more and more like the other major financial crisis of our time. During the savings and loan crisis of the late '80s and early '90s, McCain's political favors and aggressive support for deregulation put him at the center of the fall of Lincoln Savings and Loan, one of the largest in the country. More than 23,000 investors lost their savings. Overall, the savings and loan crisis required the federal government to bail out the savings of hundreds of thousands of families and eventually cost American taxpayers $124 billion."
"Sound familiar?" Plouffe added. "In that crisis, John McCain and his political patron Charles Keating played central roles that ultimately landed Keating in jail for fraud and McCain in front of the Senate Ethics Committee."
The Obama campaign is also planning to release a 13-minute "documentary" on the affair.
For their part, McCain strategists say McCain has owned up to his mistakes in the Keating episode but that Obama isn't coming clean about his relationship with William Ayers, a former antiwar radical and violent protester.
In sum, the GOP campaign plans to attack Obama on multiple fronts:
• On policy issues, Obama will be attacked for proposing to raise taxes and to increase federal spending by $1 trillion and for not being aggressive in backing domestic drilling to help achieve energy independence. In response, Obama spokesmen say McCain is distorting the Democrat's positions and that it is McCain who is "out of touch" with middle-class Americans on these issues and others, including healthcare. Obama's campaign is also running a TV ad criticizing McCain's actions in the current economic crisis as "erratic."
• On personal issues, Obama will be attacked for poor judgment, lack of leadership, and few accomplishments in the Senate or in the Illinois Legislature, where he served before arriving on Capitol Hill. A particular focus will be Obama's opposition to the surge of U.S. troops into Iraq that is credited for being at least partially responsible for lessening violence there. Obama aides say McCain has demonstrated poor judgment on a variety of issues, including his initial support for the Iraq war.
• Most controversial, McCain and his surrogates will attack Obama's character, as Palin did over the weekend. Palin took up this theme in a Colorado speech by arguing that Obama was "palling around with terrorists," a reference to Ayers, now a professor in Chicago, Obama's hometown. "Our opponent...is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country," Palin said. "This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America." The Ayers strategy is designed to raise doubts among swing voters about whether Obama shares their values of patriotism, law and order, and respect for authority.
Obama aides say Ayers hosted a fundraiser for him years ago, but the two have never "palled around" and Obama has denounced Ayers's violent past. In Asheville, N.C., Obama said, "Senator McCain and his operatives are gambling that he can distract you with smears rather than talk to you about substance. They'd rather try to tear our campaign down than lift this country up. This is what you do when you're out of touch, out of ideas, and running out of time."
Another line of attack will be to connect Obama with Chicago businessman Tony Rezko, who has been convicted of corruption charges, McCain advisers say.
In addition, anti-Obama groups outside the McCain campaign are expected to resurrect the controversial anti-American, antiwhite comments of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who was Obama's pastor for many years, in an effort to link the Democratic candidate to controversial characters who might jeopardize his reputation.
The main goal of McCain for the month remaining until Election Day will be to shift attention from the economy, his aides say. "When the story day after day is how much we're suffering from a crisis like the Great Depression, it's hard for the party in power not to lose ground," says a senior McCain adviser. Voters tend to blame the Republicans and McCain for the current economic downturn because Republican President George W. Bush has controlled the executive branch for the past eight years.