WASHINGTON — Despite a vow to focus on issues, the Republican Party plans to use Barack Obama's relationships with controversial figures to undermine the public's view of his character, according to the chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The party will make an issue out of Obama's ties to such people as Chicago developer Antoin Rezko, recently conducted on fraud and money-laundering charges, and '60s radical William Ayers, unrepentant about his role in bombings of government buildings to protest the Vietnam War, GOP Chairman Robert M. "Mike" Duncan said.
Duncan hedged, however, about how the party would handle Obama's relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He said the party wouldn't make an issue out of Wright, then refused to rule out using videos of Wright's inflammatory sermons in the campaign.
Duncan said that the presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain, had instructed him to run a campaign based on issues.
"He made it clear that he wanted to run a respectful campaign, a respectful campaign on issues, because this is the biggest leadership contest in the world, and we're doing that," Duncan said in an interview taped for C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program that was conducted by reporters from McClatchy, the Politico Web site and C-SPAN.
Still, he said that Obama's judgment and character were legitimate targets.
"I think associations are fair game," Duncan said in the interview.
"I'd like to talk about Rezko in Chicago, the fact that he was one of the early supporters of Obama, helped him get started gaining this sweetheart deal for the house that he bought.
"I'd like to talk about William Ayers, who was an unrepentant underground Weatherman who was involved in bombings in this country."
Rezko is a Chicago businessman who contributed to Obama and raised money for him. He also sold a piece of property to Obama that was next to Obama's home. His conviction wasn't related to Obama.
Ayers is a Chicagoan who hosted a reception for Obama when Obama first ran for the Illinois senate. He was a member of the Weathermen, a '60s and '70s radical group that used bombs to protest the Vietnam War, and he's refused to apologize for it.
Duncan said that Republicans also would hammer Obama about two of the people he chose to help in his search for a vice presidential running mate, longtime Washington insider James Johnson and former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Johnson stepped down Wednesday after reports that he may have received a sweetheart home loan from Countrywide Financial Corp., one of the banking giants caught up in the subprime mortgage backers that have created a national housing crisis.
Duncan noted that Holder was involved in the controversial pardon by former President Clinton of fugitive financier Marc Rich. He didn't note that one of Rich's lawyers was I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who later was the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Duncan at first stepped back from making an issue of Wright, whose sermons are controversial and racially charged.
"We're talking about judgment; we're talking about association, but we're taking Senator Obama at his word about Reverend Wright, the fact that he said he didn't hear those sermons, the fact that he's disassociated himself from it," Duncan said.
"So that's not something you're going to hear me talking about. I am going to talk about Rezko and Ayers and all of the others."
But when he was asked whether he'd pledge not to use videos of Wright's sermons in ads, Duncan refused.
"Well, why at this point would I answer a question like that? It's not my intent. I have no intent, and will not make race a part of this campaign. I'll say it that way," he said.
C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program airs Sundays at 10 a.m. EDT and again at 6 p.m. EDT.