Sen. John McCain challenged his Democratic presidential opponent Sen. Barack Obama's honor and honesty on the eve of Tuesday's presidential debate, injecting a personal tone heading into the face-to-face showdown as he sought to refocus the race on Mr. Obama's character.
"My opponent's touchiness every time he is questioned about his record should make us only more concerned," Mr. McCain said in New Mexico, suggesting that Mr. Obama was hiding something. "It's as if somehow the usual rules don't apply, and where other candidates have to explain themselves and their records, Senator Obama seems to think he is above all that."
In an across-the-board assault Monday, Mr. McCain accused Mr. Obama of lying on his economic record. The Republican's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has raised Mr. Obama's ties to William Ayers, a founder of the radical Weather Underground group that bombed government buildings to protest the Vietnam War, and the Republican National Committee filed a complaint arguing that Mr. Obama had taken illegal campaign contributions.
The McCain campaign also announced a commercial arguing that the Democrat is "dishonorable" and "dangerous" for having voted against a troop funding bill. Mr. Obama did vote against one war-spending bill that became law, though he voted in favor of other versions.
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With the second of three face-to-face debates between the two men scheduled for Tuesday night, the ghosts of campaigns past have begun to haunt both of them - mainly because Mr. McCain is determined to make their past a central issue.
While claiming to be above the fray, Mr. Obama's campaign retaliated in kind, accusing Mr. McCain of extensive ties to a convicted felon from the savings and loan scandal. It released a 13-minute Web video rehashing Mr. McCain's role as one of the Keating Five - four Democratic senators and Mr. McCain who faced scrutiny for their relationships with Charles H. Keating Jr., who was convicted of fraud for his mismanagement of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan Association.
The senator from Illinois said the new attacks were "political shenanigans, smear tactics," designed to distract from the economy issue.
"I cannot imagine anything more important to talk about than the economic crisis," he told reporters while campaigning in Asheville, N.C.
Mr. McCain finds himself with decreasing options for how to win the race, even by his campaign's own yardsticks.
Last week, McCain advisers said they took solace in the fact that they had kept Mr. Obama under 50 percent in polls - though three polls released Monday put the Democrat over that mark. And the McCain advisers said they were ahead or tied in every state President Bush won in 2004, though the state-by-state averages on RealClearPolitics.com show Mr. McCain trailing in Colorado, Ohio, Florida, Nevada and Virginia.
Even Mr. McCain's ad strategy is troubled.
Evan Tracey, whose Campaign Media Analysis Group tracks campaign advertising, said in his blog Monday that Mr. McCain's early season gamble winning red states without expending resources there has failed. Mr. McCain and the Republican National Committee now find themselves having to run ads to defend those red states.
"While the McCain campaign is playing defense with valuable resources, the Obama camp is spending more and more money on ads in some of the key media markets in states such as Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania," Mr. Tracey writes.
In yesterday's back-and-forth, the Obama campaign's video tying Mr. McCain to Mr. Keating relied heavily on William K. Black, who was deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. and who met with the senators and said he felt they were pressuring him to back away from an investigation of the finances of Lincoln, Mr. Keating's savings and loan.
In the video, Mr. Black says the same problems that plagued the S&Ls now plague the broader Wall Street financial services industry, and the Obama campaign says it's a result of the economic philosophy Mr. McCain shares.
Mr. McCain was subject to a Senate hearing and rebuke for his role, though star lawyer Robert Bennett, who served as Democratic counsel on the Senate committee that investigated the issue, said there was no substance to the charges and that Mr. McCain was swept up in a partisan affair.
"Based on all of the evidence, I concluded that there was no violation of any Senate rules, of any laws, of any ethical standards," Mr. Bennett told XM Radio's POTUS '08 station Monday.
Democrats argued that Mr. Bennett is no longer impartial because Mr. McCain in 2007 hired him as an attorney.
Mr. Obama fought charges that he has close ties to Mr. Ayers, the Weather Underground figure. His campaign said he did not know of Mr. Ayers' background, and he himself said it was "guilt by association."
"He engaged in these despicable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old. I served on a board with him," Mr. Obama told Roland Martin on the Tom Joyner Radio Show.
Mr. McCain's campaign argues that those ties are deeper, and Mr. McCain said Mr. Obama must begin to answer more questions.
"Rather than answer his critics, Senator Obama will try to distract you from noticing that he never answers the serious and legitimate questions he has been asked," he said. "I don't need lessons about telling the truth to American people. And were I ever to need any improvement in that regard, I probably wouldn't seek advice from a Chicago politician."
•Explore different election-night scenarios with our 'Road to 270' interactive electoral college map.
Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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