John McCain, with wife Cindy, attends a Road to Victory rally at Florida… (Ricky Carioti -- The Washington…)
The 1960s radical William Ayers was not invoked on the campaign trail yesterday, but for anyone living in a battleground state, his name may have been left on an answering machine.
Ayers and his connection to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama are at the heart of an ambitious "robo-call" campaign from GOP nominee John McCain and the Republican National Committee, part of a $70 million get-out-the-vote operation underway in electorally important states.
"Hello. I'm calling for John McCain and the RNC because you need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home and killed Americans," a voice says in the automated calls that have been heard in Virginia, Ohio, Florida and elsewhere.
The short call adds: "Barack Obama and his Democratic allies lack the judgment to lead our country."
The message is among what one Republican campaign worker described as "a couple of hundred" different calls that the GOP plans to employ, tailored to different states and areas and paid for by state parties, the RNC or the McCain campaign.
Among calls being made are joint ventures by McCain and the RNC that also criticize Democrats for wanting to "give civil rights to terrorists," call Obama's position on abortion "extreme" and even blast the Democrat for attending a Hollywood fundraiser during a period of economic turmoil.
Obama supporters in Virginia and elsewhere have complained to the media about the calls, and so has his campaign. Even Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) expressed disapproval, with her spokesman telling a state political publication yesterday that she wants "the McCain campaign to stop these calls immediately."
Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said "John McCain's campaign has admitted that the economy is a losing issue for them, so he's chosen to launch dishonorable and dishonest attacks like this."
Vietor acknowledged that the Obama campaign is using robo-calls as well, but would not be specific about what the calls say.
Robo-calls in the closing days of a campaign have become ubiquitous, even if their utility is unclear.
John G. Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University who specializes in studying negative advertising, said such calls "may stimulate turnout, but they would have to be targeted to the right people. It could backfire, and if the attacks get in the mainstream media, the push back, too, could be substantial.''
Often robo-calls whisper about an issue that the candidates do not want to discuss on the campaign trail. But that is hardly the case with Ayers, who co-founded the radical group the Weather Underground. McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, have talked about ties between Ayers and Obama as recently as Wednesday night's presidential debate.
"I don't care about an old washed-up terrorist," McCain said during the debate, but he added that Obama has not been open about the "full extent of that relationship."
Obama challenged the suggestion that he had spent time "palling around with terrorists," as Palin charged at a campaign rally, and said Ayers "engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group."
Ayers, now a Chicago professor, held an event at his house for Obama early in the Illinois Democrat's career, and the two have served together on a school reform board, but Obama said they are not close.
That McCain has made the issue the subject of robo-calls, Geer said, "reflects how much the McCain campaign really wants to get this message out. They're just trying it from every angle."
Meanwhile yesterday, the campaigns battled over other campaign tactics.
In a conference call, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said the reports about investigations of the community organizing group ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) suggested "rampant voter fraud as it relates to voter registration."
During the debate, Davis said, Obama had a chance to clarify his associations with ACORN but chose instead to "create a fog around the issue by not taking the opportunity to spell out his historical relations" with the group.
Davis then went on to say that on Election Day "and the day after," people have to be able to believe that they had "a fair and honest election" and that the person they chose "seems not to have a cloud hanging over this election." He later said that "when John McCain gets elected president," the party wanted to be sure the election process was the best it could be.
For the past two weeks, the RNC has steadily ratcheted up its response to the ACORN voter registration drives, sending out seven media advisories before Wednesday's debate questioning tactics used in ACORN registration drives.
In a conference call this week, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said Republicans' ACORN attacks are part of "pulling out their old playbook."
"I think what they're doing right now is a form of intimidation, which is to raise a lot of questions out there, create a lot of confusion, and I think it's in the interest of trying to intimidate voters," he said.
The Democrats called for their own investigation.
Robert F. Bauer, the Obama campaign's general counsel, asked Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey to expand a special prosecutor's investigation to include a leak about the FBI investigating ACORN on suspicion of voter fraud.