ASHEVILLE, N.C. — One day after John McCain's running mate escalated the vitriol of the presidential campaign by invoking a 1960s radical, Barack Obama accused Republicans of trying to distract voters from the sagging economy with "smears"
Speaking to thousands of voters Sunday afternoon at Asheville High School, the Democratic nominee argued that McCain shares President Bush's economic philosophy.
"Sen. McCain and his operatives are gambling that they can distract you with smears rather than talk to you about substance," Obama said. "They'd rather try to tear our campaign down than lift this country up. That's what you do when you're out of touch, out of ideas and running out of time."
The dust-up comes as Obama's poll numbers have risen in recent weeks, even in some traditionally Republican states, as Wall Street's woes dominate the news. According to several polls, more voters see Obama as better able to handle the economy than McCain.
Last week, senior McCain advisor Greg Strimple telegraphed the strategy, telling reporters that the campaign would be aggressive during the final 30 days before the election. He said they would be "looking to turning the page on this financial crisis and getting back to discussing Mr. Obama's liberal, aggressively liberal, record and how he will be too risky for the Americans."
The new strategy was evident this weekend when Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said Obama is "palling around with terrorists who would target their own country." Campaigning in California, Texas and Nebraska, the Alaska governor said she was referring to Obama's acquaintance with William Ayers, who helped found the radical Weather Underground in the 1960s. The group planned a series of bombings targeting the Capitol and the Pentagon. Ayers acknowledged involvement in bombings but was not convicted of terrorist acts.
Obama, who was born in 1961, has denounced Ayers' conduct and has pointed out that he was a child during Ayers' radical years. He and Ayers met decades later, when they were working on education issues in Chicago. Ayers, now an education professor, hosted a coffee for Obama in the mid-1990s.
Palin noted that the New York Times had written about the Ayers-Obama link. The article concluded, however, that the men were not close.
In North Carolina, Obama warned that his opponents wanted to change the subject.
"His campaign has announced that they plan to, and I quote, turn the page on the discussion about our economy and spend the final weeks of this campaign launching Swift Boat-style attacks on me," he said, referring to a group known as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In 2004, the group attacked Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry's war record, to devastating effect.
"The American people are too smart for that," Obama said Sunday. "On Nov. 4 you and I are going to turn the page, not on talking about the economy; we're going to the turn the page on the disastrous economic policies of George W. Bush and John McCain."
The Illinois senator is pushing hard for this state's 15 electoral votes, which Bush won by 12 percentage points in 2004.
Obama, who defeated New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state's primary, has campaigned here five times since the Democratic convention. His wife, Michelle, will be here Tuesday.
McCain had dominated North Carolina polls, but in the last few weeks, Obama has been gaining. An average of recent surveys by Pollster.com showed McCain ahead by about 1 percentage point -- within the margin of error.
Obama arrived in this town Saturday night to prepare for his debate with McCain in Nashville on Tuesday night.
McCain spent Sunday preparing for the debate in Sedona, Ariz., near his family retreat. He had no public events.
As for Ayers, the McCain campaign argues that Obama's acquaintance with him is fair game, because it raises questions about Obama's judgment. And they used the discussion to draw attention to the Democrat's relationship with Antoin "Tony" Rezko, his former fundraiser who was convicted in June of federal corruption charges.
"The last four weeks of this election will be about whether the American people are willing to turn our economy and national security over to Barack Obama, a man with little record, questionable judgment, and ties to radical figures like unrepentant domestic terrorist William Ayers," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said in a statement Sunday.
Meantime, the Obama campaign launched the last of four ads criticizing McCain's healthcare plan, which will run in battleground states starting today. And late Sunday, the Associated Press reported, Obama invoked a specter of his own: Charles Keating, owner of the defunct thrift Lincoln Savings & Loan and a former McCain donor. The campaign said it would e-mail supporters a video detailing McCain's ties to Keating, whose thrift collapse in the 1980s cost taxpayers $2.6 billion.
And the Republican National Committee announced that it would file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that Obama had violated campaign-finance laws by accepting donations from foreigners and allowing donors to give more than the $2,300-per-person limit.
Obama has shattered fundraising records, raising more than $450 million, with more than half the donations in increments of less than $200.
Bill Burton, Obama's spokesman, said the campaign has "gone above and beyond" disclosure requirements.
"We constantly review our donors for any issues," Burton said. "And while no organization is completely protected from Internet fraud, we will continue to review our fundraising procedures to ensure that we are taking every available to step to root out improper contributions."
Reston reported from North Carolina, Mehta from Arizona.