WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's campaign was nearly swamped this spring when his pastor's inflammatory sermons were widely publicized. He averted disaster and has so far avoided damage from ties to 1960s radical William Ayers and disgraced fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko.
But now John McCain, trailing in the polls, is reviving questions about Obama's past.
Vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin has brought up the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and Monday she repeated her accusation that the Democratic nominee had befriended terrorists, while McCain asked, "Who is the real Barack Obama?"
Both campaigns have long planned for this newly negative moment, but with the world embroiled in an economic meltdown, the script is taking unexpected turns -- and the old lines of attack could fall flat.
Rather than command public attention, as the Wright controversy did, the debate over Obama's past is being overshadowed by the loss of thousands of jobs every day and a steep decline in the stock market. With voters overwhelmed by major news events, character attacks can easily be lost in the din.
But McCain and Palin have drawn attention to them by raising the charges against Obama themselves in unusually strident terms, a move that runs the risk of turning off undecided voters or sounding discordant in a time of public unease.
"The question is, can you reintroduce character in the last 30 days of the campaign and tie it to the current economic crisis?" said Chris LaCivita, who is advising a conservative group that has aired ads in several states attacking the Obama-Ayers connection.
Obama is leaving little to chance. On Monday, he answered McCain, unleashing a major effort to remind voters of McCain's association with the Keating Five banking scandal, a chapter the campaign is trying to tie to the current financial disaster. Obama's camp also escalated its effort to question McCain's temperament, with a new TV ad calling him "erratic."
For all of their careful planning, neither side could possibly have predicted that they would be waging the final four weeks of the campaign amid the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
It is a particular challenge for Republicans, who acknowledge that Obama has gained ground at a time that voters appear to trust him more than McCain to fix the economy and are blaming many of the troubles on President Bush.
And new polls released Monday showed fewer signs of hope for McCain, with Obama retaining a lead nationally and in several key battlegrounds.
Strategists believe the charges flying back and forth in the 2008 campaign must be tethered to the economic anxiety to have any resonance.
Even if McCain manages to tap into public uncertainty about Obama's past, it is the fears of financial meltdown that are likely to decide "whether the doubts that are raised make a damn bit of difference to voters," said one GOP strategist, who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly about internal party deliberations.
McCain indicated Monday at a rally in Albuquerque that he would try to make that connection himself -- delivering an unusually biting speech in which he argued that voters risked putting the nation's economy in the hands of someone with a murky past.
"For a guy who's already authored two memoirs, he's not exactly an open book," McCain 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?"
Pointing to the financial crisis and other dangers facing America, McCain added a dig at his opponent that seemed designed to highlight Obama's unusual background, including a childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii: "I didn't just show up out of nowhere. After all, America knows me; you know my strengths and my faults; you know my story and my convictions."
Palin, meantime, has taken the lead in delivering the most zealous attacks on Obama's character. Over the weekend, she accused him of "palling around with terrorists," referring to Ayers, a founder of the radical Weather Underground.
On Monday, a pro-McCain columnist quoted her questioning why Obama's ties with Wright were not being discussed more, "because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that -- with, I don't know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he didn't get up and leave -- to me, that does say something about character."
Obama cut off ties with Wright earlier this year and quit his membership at Trinity United Church of Christ, where he had worshiped for two decades with Wright, whom he has credited with helping him become a Christian.
The Illinois senator has denied having strong ties with Ayers, whose group was connected with several bombings during the Vietnam War era. Obama has denounced the tactics and Ayers' views.