WASHINGTON — Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama launched a new round of negative attacks on each other Monday, with McCain trying to shift focus away from the economic crisis and Obama testing how hard to hit McCain on the issue.
On the eve of the rivals' second debate, McCain, speaking in New Mexico, suggested that voters don't know "the real Barack Obama." A defiant McCain said, "I didn't just show up out of nowhere. After all, America knows me."
The McCain campaign also released an ad that takes out of context some of Obama's statements and votes to imply that he was dismissive of the U.S. troops' mission in Afghanistan and sought to cut off funds for soldiers.
In Florida, McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, continued to play up Obama's fairly thin ties to Bill Ayers, a former Vietnam-era radical who advocated violence and is now a college professor in Chicago.
Obama, in North Carolina, told reporters the economic crisis is damaging McCain's campaign.
Obama's campaign Monday launched a Web site focused on McCain's connection to the Keating Five scandal and the savings-and-loan industry's collapse in the late 1980s. The site includes a short documentary and links to news articles and documents pertaining to the scandal.
McCain was cleared of wrongdoing but admonished by the Senate Ethics panel for "poor judgment" for trying to intervene with federal regulators on behalf of a political patron, Charles Keating, who was later convicted on multiple fraud counts in connection with his failed savings and loan.
David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, told supporters in an e-mail that "McCain's Keating history is relevant" because McCain's always backed deregulation, which Plouffe said fed the need for a federal bailout of S&Ls then and for Wall Street now.
Responding to the Keating criticism, McCain's campaign got John Dowd, McCain's Keating Five attorney, on the phone with reporters. Dowd blasted the Keating affair as political, noting that the Arizona senator was the only Republican investigated.
"That colored the hearing," Dowd said. "The bottom line was that John had not violated any rule of the Senate or any law of the United States."
Obama's campaign also launched a TV ad noting "three-quarters of a million jobs lost this year, our financial system in turmoil" and calling McCain "erratic in a crisis" and "out of touch on the economy." The ad features a photo of McCain and President Bush standing close together and smiling.
Kenn Venit, a Connecicut-based media consultant who is not affiliated with either presidential campaign, said it's not surprising that both McCain and Obama are going increasingly negative in the campaign's closing days.
"This is all about political warfare, all the weapons in the arsenal will be coming out within the next 29 days," Venit said. "The race card, the money card, all cards are in play."
Venit said sometimes going negative works, but that in this case he believes the economy may trump all else. "I don't think the public cares about any of these people," he said of Ayers and Keating. "The question is what are you going to do for us tomorrow."
As the Dow plunged, McCain, speaking in Albuquerque, argued that Obama had stayed on the sidelines of the emerging housing-finance crisis without pushing for mortgage regulation until it became politically expedient.
McCain also implied that Obama, a first-term senator, is hiding aspects of himself from voters.
"Whatever the issue, there's always a backstory with Senator Obama," he said. "All people want to know is: What has this man ever actually accomplished in government? What does he plan for America? In short: Who is the real Barack Obama? You ask such questions and all you get in response is another barrage of angry insults."
Palin, referring to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, said that Obama is someone "who sees America as imperfect enough to work with a former domestic terrorist who targeted his own country."
Ayers hosted a campaign event for Obama in 1995, lives near him in Chicago and served with him on a board that oversaw a charity. Ayers also advised a separate board that Obama chaired that concerned distributing donated money for Chicago schools.
There's no evidence that the two are close. Obama has condemned Ayers' support for violence at a time when Obama was a child.
Howard Wolfson, who was communications director for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, said that McCain's negative strategy is too little, too late given the public's concern about the economy.
"I think the collapse of Wall Street has totally transformed the race. Voters are obsessed about the collapse of the economy, they don't want to hear about William Ayers," Wolfson said.
"In an ordinary year, you might have some resonance," Wolfson said. "But what's happened in the last couple of weeks render these tactics useless. Not only is the climate bad for the tactic, it's late for it. These kind of attacks need time to seep in. The Swift Boat attacks (against John Kerry in 2004) began in August."
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