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Ahead of Second Debate, Presidential Candidates Sharpen Attacks

October 6, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Leading up to Tuesday night's presidential debate, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama each released ads questioning the other's character. Political reporters discuss the state of the race in the midst of economic turmoil and what to watch for during the debate.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The race for the White House heated up even more over the weekend, with the campaigns in attack mode on the trail and over the air.

On Saturday, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin went after Barack Obama’s character, raising his association with William Ayers, a founder of the radical Vietnam War-era group the Weather Underground.

GOV. SARAH PALIN (R), Alaska: Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Weather Underground members were blamed for bombings of several public buildings when Obama was a child. At a primary debate in April, Obama denounced Ayers’ views and activities.

And today in Asheville, North Carolina, where he’s preparing for tomorrow’s debate, Obama decried the McCain tactics.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I was a little surprised over the last couple of days to hear Senator McCain say or Senator McCain’s campaign say that we want to turn the page on discussions about the economy, and a campaign — a member of Senator McCain’s campaign saying today that, if we keep on talking about the economic crisis, we lose.

I’ve got news for the McCain campaign: The American people are losing right now. They’re losing their jobs. They’re losing their health care. They’re losing their homes. They’re losing their savings.

I cannot imagine anything more important to talk about than the economic crisis. And the notion that we would want to brush that aside and engage in the usual political shenanigans and smear tactics that have come to characterize too many political campaigns I think is not what the American people are looking for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Palin has shown no signs of dropping the Ayers issue, using the attack again at a rally this morning in Florida.

GOV. SARAH PALIN: Barack Obama says that Ayers was just someone in the neighborhood, but that’s less than truthful. His own top adviser said that they were, quote, “certainly friendly.” In fact, Obama held one of his first meetings of his political career in Bill Ayers’ living room.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Albuquerque, New Mexico, McCain himself went after Obama, accusing him of ducking questions about his past.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Rather than answer his critics, Senator Obama will try to distract you from noticing that he never answers the serious and legitimate questions he’s been asked.

But let — let me reply in the plainest terms that I know. I don’t need lessons about telling the truth to the American people. And were I ever to need any improvement in that regard, I probably wouldn’t seek advice from a Chicago politician.

Candidates launch dual attacks

Amy Walter
The Hotline
Subtlety gets thrown out the window at this point in the campaign. And so you have to go -- if you are the campaign that's behind -- directly for the easiest attack that you can.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Obama campaign today pushed back against the Ayers attacks with its own guilt-by-association claim: a 13-minute documentary online about McCain's involvement in the Keating Five scandal.

WILLIAM BLACK, Former Deputy Director, Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp.: The Keating Five involved all the things that have brought the modern crisis.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the late 1980s, McCain was among five senators accused of improperly aiding savings and loan executive Charles Keating, a big campaign donor. An investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee found McCain had used poor judgment in his dealings with Keating.

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign is running a new television ad that seizes on part of an Obama comment on the war in Afghanistan.

TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: Who is Barack Obama? He says our troops in Afghanistan are...

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: ... just air-raiding villages and killing civilians...

TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: How dishonorable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While the Obama campaign's media blitz includes a new television spot criticizing McCain's health care proposal.

TV COMMERCIAL NARRATOR: On health care, John McCain promises a tax credit. But here's what he won't tell you: McCain would impose a new tax on health benefits, taxing your health care for the first time ever.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Obama has also drawn attention to health care while on the stump, as he did in Newport News, Virginia, on Saturday.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: The question isn't how we can afford to focus on health care. The question is, how can we afford not to?

Because in order to fix our economic crisis and rebuild our middle class, we need to fix our health care system, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A new Suffolk University poll shows Obama with a 12-point lead in Virginia, a state that hasn't voted Democratic in 44 years. That matches the trend in other battleground state surveys, most of which have Obama running at least a few points ahead.

McCain coming off hard week

Karen Tumulty
Time Magazine
You know, people do negative campaigning traditionally because it works, but I think that it's more difficult to pull something like this off when you are in the middle of a crisis as big as this one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the latest political developments, we turn to Karen Tumulty. She's national political correspondent for Time magazine. And Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, the National Journal's political daily.

Thank you both for being here.

We're 29 days from the election, Amy. And on a day when the economy has everybody worried -- you've got all this negativity. You've got the McCain campaign talking about somebody who was involved with the Weather Underground back in the 1960s.

What do you make of all this? Is this the kind of tactic that's going to work?

AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: Well, it's actually -- it shouldn't come as that much surprise. As you pointed out, we're 29 days out. John McCain knows looking at the polls he's not making much traction.

Last week was terrible for his campaign. The focus on the economy not good for the McCain campaign. The focus on George Bush, every time he's on television talking about the economy, not good for John McCain.

Subtlety gets thrown out the window at this point in the campaign. And so you have to go -- if you are the campaign that's behind -- directly for the easiest attack that you can.

In this case, it's character, trying to move the topic off of the things you don't want to talk about and onto Obama. And the issues that were brought up a lot during the primary campaign haven't necessarily been answered, hoping that maybe, just maybe, the focus in the next couple weeks will get off the economy and they can make this a referendum on Barack Obama instead of a referendum on the issue agenda.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Karen, a smart tactic?

KAREN TUMULTY, Time Magazine: You know, people do negative campaigning traditionally because it works, but I think that it's more difficult to pull something like this off when you are in the middle of a crisis as big as this one.

In fact, when I was watching the McCain speech in Albuquerque today, where he was, you know, very angrily saying, "We don't know who this Barack Obama is," that was the smaller picture on the screen. The bigger picture on the screen was the Dow Jones board, which was down at that point, you know, something like 400 points.

So I don't think this is particularly what the public is listening for from these candidates right now. And certainly the polling does not suggest that this is getting much traction.

In fact, for the first time -- in a series of polls that we're seeing today, for the first time Obama is getting over 50 percent in the polls. It suggests that this is not hurting him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Amy, you do get the sense that this is a kitchen-sink approach, at least right now on the part of the McCain camp.

You had Sarah Palin quoted as saying she was looking at whether or not they should bring up Reverend Jeremiah Wright. There was someone who introduced Senator McCain today who used Senator Obama's middle name, "Hussein." So do we expect to see more of this in the days to come?

AMY WALTER: Well, this is what's interesting, in that -- and I agree with Karen, too, that when you're at a point at history like we are right now, the traditional campaign tactics just are much more difficult to actually take hold.

And the fact is, you know, if you are looking at where the McCain campaign is going right now, they are hoping that those tactics do work out.

When all is said and done, though, I'm surprised that we haven't seen more 527 outside groups doing this. It's rare that we see the candidate themselves actually going out there and making these attacks. They can go out and talk about issue agenda, while other groups come in and take up some of the harshest rhetoric.

But at this point, we haven't seen any. It doesn't mean they're not going to come, but what the McCain campaign obviously is gambling is that they have to do it themselves, because they can't wait for somebody else to come in.

Obama's challenges moving forward

Amy Walter
The Hotline
Barack Obama, even though he's ahead in these polling, he's looking very good right now, for a good proportion of this key electorate, he still remains something of an enigma to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and, Karen, you've got the Obama camp coming back with this documentary, they're calling it, online, where they're going after McCain, bringing up the Keating Five scandal from back in the late 1980s.

Is this a smart move for Obama? Or is this potentially dangerous for him to get down in the mud, too?

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, Barack Obama said in a radio interview -- I think it was today -- "I'm not going to throw the first punch, but I'm going to throw the last one."

I, however, think that it is entirely possible for him to overplay this, because both he and John McCain came into this race representing a new and different brand of politics, a politics that was more about consensus, less about bitter partisanship.

And I do think that, if Obama responds too much in kind, it's almost like both campaigns have over-learned the lessons of the Swift Boat Veterans from four years ago.

But I think if he responds too much in kind, he really damages his own brand, particularly with the swing voters, these independent voters that he's very badly going to need on Election Day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So he has a choice, Amy, is what you're saying?

AMY WALTER: Well, but -- yes, that's a very fine line to have to play, given that, yes, I think it is true that there is the over-learned lesson of the Swift Boat, which is any attack, you not only punch back, but you punch back harder, although it is noticeable that they're not doing this on television. They're doing this through the Web, hoping that free media is going to push this for them.

The other question then comes into just how much further this is going to go or is this just a quick response? Remember, Barack Obama, even though he's ahead in these polling, he's looking very good right now, for a good proportion of this key electorate, he still remains something of an enigma to them.

And so I think the fact is, he cannot allow any attack on the character, on these issues -- "Is he too risky?" -- to go unanswered.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Karen, you brought up these polls a minute ago and saying, you know, for the first time, you are seeing Obama consistently, at least for a few days, over 50 percent. How reliable are the polls right now? We are four weeks and a day out from the election.

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, the polls -- individual polls themselves are not reliable, but at this point it's turning into a pattern. And it is turning into a pattern that is -- it's all going one way.

And once you see one candidate -- in this case, Barack Obama -- consistently over 50 percent, I think that's telling you that the race is, in fact, solidifying.

Debate will evaluate character

Karen Tumulty
Time Magazine
I think for most voters, though, the feeling is they want to see these candidates go through each one of their paces, the three debates, and then get an overall sense, the measure of how these folks did, rather than looking at each debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amy, tell us some more about who these persuadable voters are who are out there.

AMY WALTER: Well, that's a good question. And so what we're looking at right now is both the national polling and the state polling. And what we may be seeing nationally doesn't necessarily translate in some of these battleground states.

But fundamentally, you know, we are looking at the same sort of typical groups of voters, whether it's women and white women, how those candidates are performing there.

What's interesting to note is, just on the national polls, at least in the polling that we're doing, Barack Obama is basically hitting the Democratic performance among white women and white men.

It's John McCain who's underperforming. He's not doing as well as George Bush has done among those voters.

So you have a big group of white voters right now sort of sitting there, trying to make up their mind. They're sitting in the undecided column. Is this the kind of thing that pushes them?

You know, this is what McCain is hoping, of course, is that these character issues -- he doesn't -- as Sarah Palin said -- he doesn't see America the way we do. Is that going to be the issue for these cross-pressured voters?

For many of these folks, they've never probably voted for a Democrat, or at least not in a long time, but the economy really pulling them, even as their cultural attachment to the Republicans is maybe holding them back a little bit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that's my question, Karen. Why wouldn't those voters be exactly the ones who are very worried about what they're watching on television and reading in the newspapers about the economy?

KAREN TUMULTY: They are very worried, and they are very angry. But what I think they don't want is a leader who looks like he is very angry.

And I think that, at this point, that Barack Obama's kind of calm, detached, intellectual demeanor with all of this has served him well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and speaking of all that, we're coming into another debate, the second presidential debate tomorrow night. This one's different. It's a town-hall style. The voters will be, I guess, just a few feet away, who are asking questions from the candidates.

Can they bring -- can Senator McCain or Senator Obama bring some of this really tough language into that setting?

AMY WALTER: Well, it's very dangerous, first of all, to bring that into that setting, because you are interacting with voters. And so when you're looking somebody in the eye, it feels very different than running a campaign ad or being at a campaign rally.

I think for most voters, though, the feeling is they want to see these candidates go through each one of their paces, the three debates, and then get an overall sense, the measure of how these folks did, rather than looking at each debate.

I know in the media we love to grade each debate, and we see it as an entity in and of itself. I think voters are going to look over the long haul of this, by the time October 16th comes around, after the last debate, they have a better sense for who these guys are.

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, I agree. And I think, also, in a town hall format the voters are going to be listening for these candidates to be talking about them, not about each other.

They're really going to be asking questions probably about their own problems and not each other's -- the candidates' character defects. So I think it would be very dangerous to try this anger strategy in a town hall forum.

AMY WALTER: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We'll see where we go. Karen Tumulty, Amy Walter, thank you both.