If you changed the channels or Web pages, you couldn´t miss the unmistakable message that Sen. John McCain has been in league with President Bush “90 percent of the time,” became entangled with a failed S&L owner, or was surrounded by Wall Street and K Street lobbyists.
Throughout this lengthy and historic presidential race, the politics of association has been the preferred tool of attack, for the campaigns themselves, news outlets, pressure groups, and partisan magazines and Web sites.
While candidates often draw distinctions based on a rival’s associations, the tactic dominates this year’s race largely because Mr. Obama’s short resume gives Mr. McCain few options for staging attacks, said James Gimpel, political science professor at the University of Maryland at College Park.
“Obama has no record to speak of, so character and judgment serve as a stand-in for policy record,” Mr. Gimpel said. “There are, of course, people who are not enthusiastic about McCain but might go to vote against Obama if you can give them reasons to do it.”
The focus on bad company intensified in the final stretch as the Obama campaign debuted a Web site, www.keatingeconomics.com, showcasing Mr. McCain’s role in the 1989 Keating Five scandal. The site, titled “Keating Economics,” featured a 13-minute documentary of how savings and loan owner Charles Keating used campaign donations to curry favors from five U.S. senators, including Mr. McCain.
The video resurrects claims that Mr. McCain “had the closest personal friendship” with Mr. Keating, who pleaded guilty to fraud charges connected to bilking bondholders when Lincoln Savings and Loan collapsed in 1989.
It neglects to mention that Mr. McCain received one of the softest rebukes from the Senate ethics committee, was the only one of the five to later testify against Mr. Keating in a civil lawsuit by bondholders, and was the only Republican among the five senators.
Mr. McCain drew fresh attention this week to Mr. Obama’s friendship with Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian university professor who has condemned Israel and has been accused of being a Palestine Liberation Organization spokesman and an apologist for its terrorism. He called for the Los Angeles Times to release a videotape it has of a 2003 party in Chicago honoring Mr. Khalidi where Mr. Obama gives a speech.
The newspaper published an article in April about Mr. Obama attending the party and cited the videotape as corroborating the story. Editors refused to disseminate the videotape, saying it was provided by a confidential source on the condition that it not be released.
“Now why that should not be made public is beyond me,” Mr. McCain said in a radio interview in Miami. “I guarantee you if there was a tape with me and [Republican vice-presidential nominee] Sarah Palin and some neo-Nazi … you think that tape wouldn’t be made public? Of course, Americans need to know, particularly about Ayers, also about the PLO. … It’s really unfortunate that we have to go through this.”
Mr. McCain and his campaign have repeatedly tied Mr. Ayers to the Democratic nominee, including in one of the presidential debates, accusing Mr. Obama of “palling around” with him and then underplaying the extent of his relationship with the man who founded the violent Weather Underground group.
The McCain campaign held two conference calls with reporters Thursday to decry what it says are some of Mr. Obama’s other shady relationships.
The campaign first assaulted Mr. Obama’s close ties to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the liberal advocacy group whose national voter-registration drive is at the center of voter fraud investigations in a dozen states, many of them electoral battlegrounds, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The McCain campaign drew attention to a former ACORN employee’s testimony in a Pennsylvania court this week that the group was given donor lists by several Democratic presidential campaigns, including Mr. Obama’s, to milk for contributions.
ACORN denied receiving an Obama donor list and dismissed the voter fraud investigations are part of a Republican voter suppression plot.
The Obama campaign, which paid an ACORN-related group more than $800,000 for get-out-the-vote work during the primaries, said it has not paid the group to work in the general election and never paid ACORN to register voters.
Next, top McCain advisers called for fresh scrutiny of Mr. Obama’s financial relationship with Rezko, who helped the senator from Illinois buy a $1.6 million Chicago mansion and worked as a fundraiser for Mr. Obama’s past races. He was convicted in June of corruption charges related to a kickback scheme for state government contracts.
Rezko helped Mr. Obama buy the mansion by purchasing the adjacent lot, which the owner of both properties insisted on selling together. Rezko paid $650,000 for the lot the same day that Mr. Obama purchased the mansion. About six month later, Mr. Obama expanded his yard by paying Rezko $104,500 for a strip of the adjoining land.
“It was a mistake to have been engaged with him at all in this or any other personal business dealing that would allow him, or anyone else, to believe that he had done me a favor,” said Mr. Obama, adding that he “misgauged” the perception that the transaction would create and noted he paid above the appraised value for the land.
Both sides say their attacks are aboveboard and wholly deserved but dismiss the rival’s as cheap shots.
Obama campaign staff privately acknowledge that fusing Mr. McCain to Mr. Bush is “the basis of the campaign” and the gist of nearly all its TV and radio ads. But they say it is a fair critique because Mr. McCain did vote with Mr. Bush 90 percent of the time.
Mr. McCain has voted with the president about 90 percent of the time since Mr. Bush took office. His lowest scores for siding with Mr. Bush were 77 percent in 2005 and 89 percent in 2006. He scored between 90 percent and 92 percent the rest of the years, according to Congressional Quarterly.
“That’s not guilt by association; that’s an actual association,” an Obama aide said.
Likewise, the McCain campaign says Mr. Obama’s association with unsavory Chicago characters shows poor judgment and underscores the Democrat’s reluctance to come clean with voters.
“They speak to his judgment because these are relationships that he is deliberately deceiving the American people about,” McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said. He noted that Mr. Obama at first described Mr. Ayers as “someone in the neighborhood,” but the campaign eventually acknowledged that the men had a long-standing professional and “casual relationship.”
Mr. Ayers, who is a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, co-founded the radical leftist Weather Underground that bombed the New York City Police Headquarters in 1970, the Capitol in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972. He escaped jail time because the federal case against him was dropped because of prosecutorial misconduct.
As for the relationship with Mr. Obama, a meet-and-greet at the home of Mr. Ayers and his wife, fellow Weather Underground terrorist Bernardine Dohrn, launched Mr. Obama’s 1995 Illinois state Senate run.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers also served together from 1995 to 1999 distributing education grants on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, which Mr. Ayers co-founded and Mr. Obama chaired. The two also served together on the board of the anti-poverty Woods Fund of Chicago from 1999 to 2002. The men appeared together on an academic-conference panel, and Mr. Obama praised a book by Mr. Ayers on juvenile justice in a Chicago Tribune blurb.
“His dishonesty about his associations are directly related to his dishonesty about his policies and his proposals,” Mr. Bounds said. “When he says he wants to support middle-class tax relief, he refuses to admit that he is also proposing serious tax increases on other Americans.”
Mr. McCain has refrained though from using one potentially explosive Obama associate - the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
Mr. Obama’s longtime pastor had been the center of controversy earlier this year during the Democratic primaries when videos surfaced of his calling on God to smite the U.S. and claiming that the government invented AIDS as a weapon to use against racial minorities. A series of flaps eventually forced Mr. Obama to resign his membership at Trinity United Church of Christ.
Despite repeated calls from conservatives outside the campaign, the McCain team has stayed away from tying Mr. Wright to the candidate, with top adviser Charlie Black saying: “Senator McCain has said in the past that he would not talk about Pastor Wright.”