Republicans are aggressively trying to depict Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama as trying to "steal" the election by linking him to a growing voter fraud scandal, deploying language typically used by Democrats when they have been on the losing end of a tight contest.
Three weeks before Election Day, more instances of fraud connected to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now are surfacing, including Mickey Mouse registering to vote in Florida. The Republican Party is quick to pounce.
The campaign of Sen. John McCain, the Republican candidate, is highlighting ties between his Democratic rival and ACORN, which is under investigation in 10 states by either federal or state officials over tens of thousands of fraudulent voter registrations, including applications with duplicate names and fictitious addresses.
"If left uncorrected, these numerous investigations and accusations of voter fraud with ACORN could produce a nightmare scenario on Election Day," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said Tuesday. "Given the extensive relationship between Barack Obama and ACORN, our campaign also feels that Senator Obama has a responsibility to rein in ACORN's efforts and to work aggressively against wide-scale voter fraud."
• Explore different election-night scenarios with our 'Road to 270' interactive electoral college map
Mr. McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, echoed the talking point and said in an e-mail this week: "We can't allow leftist groups like ACORN to steal this election."
Team Obama called Republican accusations "cynical," but it was forced to get fully engaged in defense of the $832,598 payment it made to ACORN and answer extensive questions from reporters.
Obama campaign manager David Plouffedefended the campaign's payment to ACORN, saying the money was for a voter canvass in the "larger primary states" of Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania. He added that the campaign "has never paid ACORN to register voters."
Mr. Plouffe said Republicans are "highly transparent" in what he said is their strategy to "cry out and make arguments about fraud and try and create a smoke screen out there to confuse voters. ... We're going to fight that aggressively."
In less than 48 hours, Republicans used a variation of the word "steal" in at least three appeals to supporters.
The protests echo Democratic complaints about touch-screen voting machines and stolen and "hacked" elections in 2004 and 2000, and prompted a rebuke Tuesday from Mr. Obama, who called it a distraction.
"What I want to make sure of, though, is that this is not used as an excuse for the kind of voter suppression tactics that strategies and tactics that we've seen in the past," Mr. Obama told reporters in Ohio. "Let's make sure everybody is voting, everybody is registered, everybody is doing this in a lawful way."
Federal authorities have been called in for voter fraud investigations in Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. Investigations by state law enforcement agencies are under way in Connecticut, Florida, Ohio, Nevada and Wisconsin.
A man in Cleveland this week admitted under oath to signing more than 70 voter cards for ACORN canvassers.
The ACORN political action committee endorsed Mr. Obama for president, and the group says it is being unfairly smeared for the wrongdoing of a few errant employees.
"We've seen the Republican playbook used on us before," Ohio ACORN board member Mary Keith said. "They cry foul right up through Election Day, then all the accusations melt away."
But Pennsylvania Republican Party officials said they would be at the polls in force to prevent fraudulently registered voters from casting ballots.
"We are going to be challenging people at the polls," said party Chairman Robert A. Gleason Jr. "First-time voters have to show ID at the polls. We will be demanding that and we will be checking that."
He said he was afraid that the large number of duplicate registrations - about 41,000 in Philadelphia alone - will allow people to vote twice or more.
"All we want people to do is to live to the letter of the law. If they are Republican, independent, Green Party, they all must obey the law."
The Buckeye Institute, a conservative think tank based in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday filed a state civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) lawsuit against ACORN, reopening wounds of the 2004 election dispute in Ohio.
ACORN accused the group, which includes former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, a Republican, from the 2004 squabble, of reviving an "election season stunt" from the last presidential election.
The lawsuit accuses ACORN of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity that amounts to organized crime and seeks a court injunction against further illegal activities and the dissolution of the organization in Ohio, according to the institute, which claims ACORN's actions deprived two voters of the right to participate in the elections process and the group's fraudulent voter registrations dilute votes of legally registered citizens.