LAKEVILLE, Minn. – John McCain cautioned his own supporters Friday that they need to be “respectful” toward Barack Obama, an attempt to tamp down increasingly nasty outbursts at his rallies as the Republican ticket slips in the polls.
McCain and running mate Sarah Palin were under mounting pressure to denounce the venomous attacks on Obama at their events. Videos posted on the Web have captured raw displays of emotion, and the media has focused on the seething anger of the crowds.
On Friday, Obama accused his opponents of inflaming their supporters.
“It’s easy to rile up a crowd – nothing easier than riling up a crowd by stoking anger and division, but that’s not what we need,” he said at a rally in Chillicothe, Ohio. “The American people aren’t looking for someone who can divide this country; they’re looking for somebody who will lead this country.”
McCain’s town-hall event in Lakeville, south of Minneapolis, morphed into an unusual exchange between a crowd openly hostile to an Obama presidency and a candidate who seems conflicted about the visceral emotion the race has unleashed.
The senator from Arizona alternately provoked and admonished the crowd, giving the hourlong event a see-saw feel. Even as McCain called for more civility, he went out of his way to invoke Obama’s past association with a former member of the 1960s-era radical Weather Underground. And McCain’s campaign launched an ad Friday centered on those ties.
In question after question, supporters took the microphone and urged McCain to aggressively confront Obama at the last presidential debate Wednesday, warning of disastrous consequences if the Democratic nominee wins in November.
McCain vowed to fight. But he also sought to quell the audience’s ire. When McCain said, “I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments,” the crowd booed.
The candidate quickly interjected: “No, no. I want everyone to be respectful.” With special emphasis he added: “And let’s make sure we are.”
Even prominent Republicans have questioned the McCain campaign’s recent tone. On Friday, a Michigan newspaper reported that some of that state’s Republican politicians were upset with the campaign, including William Milliken, a former governor.
“I’m disappointed in the tenor and the personal attacks on the part of the McCain campaign,” Milliken told the Grand Rapids Press.
McCain’s appeal for respect capped an edgy week on the campaign trail. With growing frequency, crowds at McCain-Palin rallies angrily taunt Obama. Mentions of his name have touched off cries of “liar” and “traitor.”
Appearing in Florida on Monday, vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin suggested that Obama was “palling around with terrorists,” invoking Obama’s connection to William Ayers.
Ayers, a founder of the violent Weather Underground, is an education professor involved in school reform in Chicago. He introduced Obama at a political event at his home in the mid-1990s. The two have served together on a board but are not close, and Obama has denounced the Weather Underground’s bombings as “detestable.”
Twice this week at rallies, supporters who introduced the candidates mentioned the Democratic nominee’s middle name: Hussein. Critics contend that is done to suggest Obama is Muslim. He is a Christian. The McCain campaign released a statement saying: “We do not condone this inappropriate rhetoric.”
McCain got an ample dose of anti-Obama sentiment in his visit Friday to Minnesota. Standing a few feet from him, a woman said: “I can’t trust Obama. He’s an Arab.”
McCain shook his head.
“No, Ma’am. No, Ma’am. He’s not,” McCain said. “He’s a decent family man – citizen – that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.”
The pressure on McCain to quiet things down puts him in an awkward spot: He needs his supporters to be energized, but as a self-styled bipartisan reformer can’t be seen as inciting voters.
This is especially difficult to pull off because the Republicans, recognizing that voters trust Obama more on the economy, have decided to question his character. Ayers has become their principal line of attack. They argue that Obama once consorted with a former terrorist – a troubling image for a nation whose memories of Sept. 11 are still fresh.
One man urged McCain here to play up Obama’s “gamy associations; some of the associations that have really marred Obama’s life.”
He did not mention Ayers; but McCain did.
McCain said Obama has not been truthful about his relationship with Ayers, whom he called an “unrepentant terrorist.” “I don’t care about old washed up terrorists,” he said, “What we do care about is people telling the truth about their association with these individuals.”
He continued: “Senator Obama said that Mr. Ayers was a guy in the neighborhood, when in reality Senator Obama’s political career was launched in Mr. Ayers’ living room. And they had a long association with it, and that’s just a fact. And we’ll be talking about that more.”
Yet McCain also tried to reassure a supporter who said he was frightened by Obama’s ties to Ayers.
The man said he and his wife are expecting a baby in April. “And frankly,” he told McCain, “we’re scared. We’re scared of an Obama presidency. … I’m concerned about someone who (consorts) with domestic terrorists such as Ayers.” He went on to say he worried about who Obama would pick as Supreme Court justices.
McCain replied that Obama is “a decent person and a person that you don’t have to be scared as president of the United States.”