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U.S. Election: Key debate tonight as race gets personal

By Scott Helman and Sasha Issenberg, Boston Globe

Senator Barack Obama, facing a broad new assault on his character from rival John McCain and the Republican Party, punched back aggressively yesterday with a multi-pronged attack on McCain’s ethics, marking a sharp, personal turn in the presidential race as the two candidates face off tonight in their second debate.

Obama’s campaign raised, for the first time, McCain’s involvement in the Keating Five controversy, an influence-peddling scandal in Congress 20 years ago that remains a major blemish on the Arizona senator’s political career. In an unusual 13-minute Internet documentary, a new website, and an e-mail to hundreds of thousands of supporters, Obama’s team asserted that the Keating case raises serious questions about McCain’s judgment and ability to manage the deeply troubled economy.

The attack by Obama, which has unnerved some supporters drawn to the Illinois senator’s pledge to run an issues-based campaign, was a response to a new tack from the McCain camp: stoking concern among voters about Obama’s past associations and his background, in an effort to stall his momentum just four weeks from Election Day.

Both campaigns have signaled a willingness to engage on character in tonight’s debate, a town hall-style event at Belmont University in Nashville in which the candidates will answer questions submitted by the audience and from voters online at GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin told voters in Florida yesterday that McCain “might as well take the gloves off.” And a senior Obama strategist suggested the Illinois senator was prepared to cite the Keating case if warranted.

Over the past few days, Palin accused Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” because of his past associations with William Ayers, a founding member of the 1970s radical group Weather Underground, and she raised anew the inflammatory rhetoric of Obama’s former preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

McCain’s campaign “wants to say the issue here is character and judgment,” said Anita Dunn, a senior Obama adviser. “And that is frankly an argument that we are happy to have with John McCain.”

This new chapter in the presidential contest was precipitated by concern in McCain’s campaign that the race is slipping from its grasp, with national and state polls moving in Obama’s direction since the economic crisis began dominating headlines last month. McCain advisers have been quoted as saying that targeting Obama’s character may offer their best chance to change the trajectory of the race.

But yesterday’s economic news illustrated how difficult it will be to change the subject: The Dow Jones industrial average, following big losses in foreign markets, slid below 10,000 for the first time in five years, closing down more than 360 points.

The GOP’s primary line of attack centers around Obama’s relationship with Ayers, a fellow Chicagoan and an education professor who hosted a political event for Obama’s 1996 Illinois Senate campaign and also served with Obama on two nonprofit boards. Ayers was quoted in 2001 as saying he did not regret bombing government buildings during the Vietnam War.

Speaking to donors Saturday in Colorado, Palin said Obama was “someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” She made a similar attack in speeches yesterday in Florida.

The use of Ayers is designed to fit into a broader GOP critique of Obama as an unknown quantity who is out of the mainstream.

“You need to know who you’re putting in the White House and where the candidate came from and what he or she believes,” McCain said at a rally yesterday in Albuquerque. “Who is the real Barack Obama?” he went on. “Ask such questions and all you get in response is another barrage of angry insults.”

The Obama campaign took a grave tone in bringing up the Keating scandal, in which McCain was accused of intervening with federal bank regulators on behalf of a failing savings and loan owned by a friend and campaign donor, Charles Keating. The Internet film is a collage of Senate testimony, news clippings, and narration by a former regulator.

McCain’s political opponents have long treated the Keating case as off-limits, largely because he has embraced the experience, in which he was criticized but not censured by a Senate committee in 1991, as the formative episode in his emergence as a born-again reformer crusading against special interests. In his 2002 memoir, he wrote that it was the “worst mistake of my life.” Last winter, McCain said that the Keating scandal “will be on my tombstone” and raised the case, unprompted, to correct a reporter who described McCain’s “squeaky-clean record” on ethics.

The episode, though, remains a sore spot for McCain, who “can’t tolerate anybody questioning his judgment,” said former Arizona Democratic senator Dennis DeConcini, a Keating Five senator who was an Obama convention delegate. “That’s his weak point.”

In May, after Obama’s associations with Ayers and Wright made headlines during the Democratic primaries, Obama said the Keating case was “not germane to the presidency,” but signaled that he did not necessarily consider it off-limits.

With millions of voters watching tonight’s debate – the second of three – McCain and Obama will have a wide audience to question each other’s character, something they avoided doing in their first meeting late last month. But they also risk coming across as negative and nasty, and may instead choose to leave the most pointed attacks to their running mates, as is customary.

Obama yesterday criticized McCain for trying to distract voters with “political shenanigans and scare tactics.” Dunn dismissed a suggestion that the Obama camp was doing the same by raising the Keating case. “This is a very relevant way to show people that there’s a real risk in putting somebody in charge of the economy who has a track record, not just this year, not just last year, but 26 years of fundamentally believing that financial institutions, insurance companies, and everybody should just be left alone to do whatever the heck they want,” she said.

It is unclear, though, how Obama’s supporters – many of whom praise his restraint in returning fire from the GOP – will react.

“I admire him for not feeding into that, not lashing back,” said Eduard Davis, a 44-year-old clothing designer from Atlanta who saw Obama in Las Vegas last month.

Fortunately for Obama, analysts say, the associations Republicans are raising about him were aired during his primary fight against Senator Hillary Clinton.

“Given how cluttered the airwaves are with information about the economic situation . . . it’s going to be hard to move it from its trajectory unless we get blatantly new information,” said Ken Goldstein, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin.

But Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who teaches political communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said it’s possible that undecided voters, who tend to have less information, will be persuaded by an attack late in the game.

“The larger question is, when you situate it in the candidate’s entire life, is it relevant at all?” she said. “We don’t know what inference the electorate draws.”

Scott Helman can be reached at [email protected]

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