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Backers offering nastiest attacks

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Sen. Barack Obama on Saturday praised his Republican presidential opponent Sen. John McCain for trying to tone down the recent bitterness of the campaign, but that tone took an ugly turn when a prominent Democratic congressman compared the Republican ticket to one-time segregationist George Wallace.

Both campaigns had appeared to be trying to get back to issues after a week of increasingly strident attacks and a week that saw Republican vice-presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin accused by state investigators of having abused her power to try to have her former brother-in-law fired from the state police.

A day after Mr. McCain took time on the campaign trail to tell his supporters to ease off, Mr. Obama thanked him.

"I appreciate his reminder that we can disagree while still being respectful of each other," the Democratic presidential nominee said in Philadelphia.

Some in the crowd at Mr. McCain's recent events have shouted "terrorist," referring to Mr. Obama's links to William Ayers, who founded the Weather Underground group that bombed government buildings to protest the Vietnam War.

In one exchange at a town hall, a woman inaccurately called Mr. Obama "an Arab" and said she didn't trust him. Mr. McCain told her he disagreed: "No, ma'am. He's a decent, family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that's what this campaign is all about."

Mr. McCain also reportedly ousted the Buchanan County, Va., chairman of his campaign for a newspaper column in which he said that if Mr. Obama was elected, he would have the White House painted black and would replace the stars on the U.S. flag "with a star and crescent logo."

On Saturday, though, the rhetorical war heated back up.

Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat and a civil rights icon, sent a statement to Politico.com saying Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin are "sowing the seeds of hatred and division" and compared them to former Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

"As public figures with the power to influence and persuade, Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin are playing with fire, and if they are not careful, that fire will consume us all," Mr. Lewis said.

He said the atmosphere that Mr. Wallace fostered led to the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls.

"George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun, but he created the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simply trying to exercise their constitutional rights," Mr. Lewis said.

Mr. McCain issued a statement calling the attack "beyond the pale."

"I am saddened that John Lewis, a man I've always admired, would make such a brazen and baseless attack on my character and the character of the thousands of hardworking Americans who come to our events to cheer for the kind of reform that will put America on the right track," Mr. McCain said, demanding that Mr. Obama personally repudiate the comments.

Mr. Wallace, a four-term Democratic governor of Alabama, recanted his segregationist beliefs in the late 1970s after becoming a born-again Christian. He died in 1998.

As for Mrs. Palin, the day after a state investigation found she abused her powers to try to have her former brother-in-law fired, she told reporters she didn't break any laws.

"If you read the report, you will see that there was nothing unlawful or unethical about replacing a Cabinet member," she said, according to CNN.

The report said Mrs. Palin was within her right to fire Alaska Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, but concluded that her administration had pressured him to fire her former brother-in-law, a state trooper who was in a bitter custody battle with Mrs. Palin's sister.

In another attack on the campaign trail, Mrs. Palin also criticized Mr. Obama for his abortion stance, saying he "has long since left behind even the middle ground on the issue of life."

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

•Explore different election-night scenarios with our 'Road to 270' interactive electoral college map.

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