On the stump and in an interview with ABC News' Charlie Gibson today, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., upped the ante in the attacks his campaign is making on the character of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., personally invoking Obama's relationship with education professor William Ayers, a former member of the violent, radical '70s group, the Weather Underground.
McCain's comments came on the seventh straight day of Wall Street losses, with the Dow plunging 679 points to trade below 9,000 points for the first time in five years.
But McCain sought to refocus attention from that to Obama's relationship with Ayers, who hosted a coffee get-together for Obama in 1995 and served on two boards with him, including one that the McCain campaign misleadingly called a "radical education foundation" in a Web video released today. The Chicago Annenberg Challenge was funded by Walter Annenberg, a former ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Nixon.
It's not as if the notion that Republicans would use Ayers to attack Obama is new.
In February, I asked Obama about four items Republicans would use to attack him on the theme of patriotism. Obama answered three of them, but skipped the one about Ayers.
During a Democratic primary debate in April, George Stephanopoulos noted Obama's relationship with Ayers and pointed out that the Weather Underground bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol and other buildings, but that Ayers had "never apologized for that. And, in fact, on 9/11, he was quoted in the New York Times saying, 'I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough.'"
Obama said of Ayers, 'This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago who I know, and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis. And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn't make much sense."
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., then pointed out that "Sen. Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid directorship position. And, if I'm not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this board continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York and, I would hope, to every American, because they were published on 9/11, and he said that he was just sorry they hadn't done more. And what they did was set bombs. And in some instances, people died. So it is-- I think it is, again, an issue that people will be asking about."
Clinton said, "I know Sen. Obama's a good man and I respect him greatly, but I think that this is an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising."
And raise it they are. But Republican officials not connected to the McCain campaign fret that given the economic turmoil going on, these attacks will only serve to alienate voters from McCain.
It's not as if these officials don't think it's legitimate issue. And it's certainly true that Obama and his campaign have been less-than-forthcoming about the Ayers relationship.
But Republicans worry that few swing voters will find this issue more compelling than the economy, and many think it will only paint McCain as nasty and out of touch.
Taking only part of Obama's quote from that April debate, McCain today told Charlie Gibson that Obama was obfuscating.
Ayers "wasn't a guy in the neighborhood. [Obama] launched his political career in his living room, in Mr. Ayers' living room," McCain said. "And I don't care about two washed-up old terrorists that are unrepentant about trying to destroy America. But I do care, and Americans should care, about his relationship with him and whether he's being truthful and candid about it.
"I think it's a factor about Sen. Obama's candor and truthfulness with the American people," McCain said, before adding, "I don't care about Mr. Ayers, who on Sept. 11, 2001, said he wished he'd have bombed more. I don't care about that. I care about [Obama] being truthful about his relationship with him. And Americans will care."
Obama told Gibson yesterday, "I'll repeat again what I've said many times. This is a guy who engaged in some despicable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old. By the time I met him, 10 or 15 years ago, he was a college professor of education at the University of Illinois. ... And the notion that somehow he has been involved in my campaign, that he is an adviser of mine, that ... I've 'palled around with a terrorist,' all these statements are made simply to try to score cheap political points."
In a Republican joint town hall meeting in Wisconsin that seemed to evoke a lot of anger against the Democratic presidential nominee today, McCain and running mate Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska leveled many charges against Obama.
“Welcome to Wisconsin," said one man, according to ABC News Bret Hovell. "Thanks for coming. I'm mad! I'm really mad! And what's gonna surprise you, it's not the economy. It's the socialists taking over our country.
"Sit down, I'm not done,” he told the applauding crowd. “I think it's so important, in today's country, what we're really missing and what's going on. When you have an Obama, Pelosi and the rest of the hooligans up there gonna run this country, we've got to have our head examined. It's time that you two are representing us, and we are mad. So go get them!”
The crowd began chanting: "U-S-A! U-S-A!"
“Well, I think I got the message,” McCain said. “Could I just say: The gentleman is right. The Democrats have been in the majority for the last two years. Have you seen any improvement?”
Said another man, "We’re all wondering why that Obama is where he’s at, How he got here. I mean everybody in this room is stunned that we’re in this position. ... We are all a product of our associations. Is there not a way to get around this media and line up the people that he has hung with?”
“Well, sir, with your help,” McCain said. “With your help and the people in this room, we will find out -- just as Sen. Clinton said in the primary that we should find out about this association. Look, we don’t care about an old washed up terrorist and his wife who still, at least on Sept. 11, 2001, said he still wanted to bomb more."
The audience disagreed with this line, as one might expect.
“That’s not the point here," McCain insisted. "The point is Sen. Obama said he was just a guy in the neighborhood. We know that’s not true. We need to know the full extent of the relationship because of whether Sen. Obama is telling the truth to the American people or not. That’s the question.”
As I type this on Thursday evening, the Asian markets are open and they're down. The Seoul composite is down nearly 9 percent and the Nikkei is down about 5 percent.