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CAMPAIGN '08: RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

McCain moves to calm his backers

He urges respect in the face of stern criticism for attacks on Obama that have stirred up fear and anger. But Ayers remains a focus.

October 11, 2008|Peter Nicholas and Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writers

LAKEVILLE, MINN. — John McCain cautioned his own supporters Friday that they needed to be "respectful" toward Barack Obama, an attempt to tamp down the increasingly nasty outbursts at his rallies as the Republican ticket slips in the polls.

McCain and running mate Sarah Palin have been under mounting pressure to denounce the venomous attacks on Obama at their events. Videos posted on the Web have captured raw displays of emotion, and the media have focused on the seething anger of the crowds.

On Friday, Obama accused his opponents of inflaming their supporters.

"It's easy to rile up a crowd -- nothing easier than riling up a crowd by stoking anger and division -- but that's not what we need," he said at a rally in Chillicothe, Ohio. "The American people aren't looking for someone who can divide this country; they're looking for somebody who will lead this country."

McCain's town hall event in Lakeville, south of Minneapolis, morphed into an unusual exchange between a crowd openly hostile to an Obama presidency and a candidate who seems conflicted about the visceral emotion the race has unleashed.

The Arizona senator alternately provoked and admonished the crowd, giving the hourlong event a seesaw feel. Even as McCain called for more civility, he went out of his way to invoke Obama's past association with a former member of the radical 1960s-era Weather Underground. And McCain's campaign launched an ad Friday centered on those ties.

In question after question, supporters took the microphone and urged McCain to aggressively confront Obama on Wednesday at the final presidential debate, warning of disastrous consequences if the Democratic nominee wins in November.

McCain vowed to fight. But he also sought to quell the audience's ire. When McCain said, "I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments," the crowd booed.

The candidate quickly interjected: "No, no. I want everyone to be respectful." With special emphasis, he added: "And let's make sure we are."

Even prominent Republicans have questioned the McCain campaign's recent tone. On Friday, a Michigan newspaper reported that some of that state's Republican politicians were upset with the campaign, including William Milliken, a former governor.

"I'm disappointed in the tenor and the personal attacks on the part of the McCain campaign," Milliken told the Grand Rapids Press.

McCain's appeal for respect capped an edgy week on the campaign trail. With growing frequency, crowds at McCain-Palin rallies are angrily taunting Obama. Mentions of his name have touched off cries of "liar" and "traitor."

Appearing in Colorado last week, Palin suggested that Obama was "palling around with terrorists," invoking Obama's connection to William Ayers.

Ayers, a founder of the violent Weather Underground, is now an education professor involved in school reform in Chicago. He introduced Obama at a political event at his home in the mid-1990s. The two have served together on a pair of nonprofit boards but are not close, and Obama has denounced the Weather Underground's bombings as "detestable."

Twice this week at rallies, supporters who introduced the candidates mentioned the Democratic nominee's middle name: Hussein. Critics contend that is done to suggest that Obama, a Christian, is Muslim. The McCain campaign released a statement saying, "We do not condone this inappropriate rhetoric."

McCain got an ample dose of anti-Obama sentiment Friday in Minnesota. Standing a few feet from him, a woman said: "I can't trust Obama. He's an Arab."

McCain shook his head.

"No, ma'am. No, ma'am. He's not," McCain said. "He's a decent family man -- citizen -- that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues."

The pressure on McCain to quiet things down puts him in an awkward spot: He needs his supporters to be energized, but as a self-styled bipartisan reformer, he can't be seen as inciting voters.

This is especially difficult to pull off because the Republicans, recognizing that voters trust Obama more on the economy, have decided to question his character. Ayers has become their principal line of attack. Their argument that Obama once consorted with a former terrorist is a troubling idea for a nation whose memories of Sept. 11 are still fresh.

One man here urged McCain to play up Obama's "gamy associations; some of the associations that have rally marred Obama's life."

He did not mention Ayers, but McCain did. McCain said Obama had not been truthful about his relationship with Ayers, whom he called an "unrepentant terrorist."

"I don't care about old washed-up terrorists," he said. "What we do care about is people telling the truth about their association with these individuals."

He continued: "Sen. Obama said that Mr. Ayers was a guy in the neighborhood, when in reality Sen. Obama's political career was launched in Mr. Ayers' living room. And they had a long association with it, and that's just a fact. And we'll be talking about that more."

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