By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
CINCINNATI, Feb. 26 -- A supporter of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) ridiculed Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in an introductory speech at a McCain rally here this morning, repeatedly using Obama's middle name, Hussein, and deriding him as a terrorist sympathizer.
Immediately afterward, former Ohio congressman and former Bush administration official Rob Portman told the crowd that the supporter, radio talk-show host Bill Cunningham, was an "extremely important" part of McCain's presidential campaign.
McCain did not mention Cunningham's comments in his speech to the enthusiastic crowd of about 400. But to reporters afterward, McCain apologized profusely for "any disparaging remarks" made about Obama or the other remaining Democratic candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).
"Whatever suggestion was made that was in any way disparaging to the integrity, character, honesty of either Senator Obama or Senator Clinton was wrong, and I condemn it," McCain said. "I will take responsibility, and I apologize for it."
Pressed by reporters, McCain said he had never met Cunningham but will "make sure nothing like that ever happens again." He added: "I absolutely repudiate such comments."
Cunningham, who is known locally for his fiery right-wing rhetoric on the radio, challenged the media to "stop taking sides and begin covering Barack Hussein Obama" as they do Republicans.
He used Obama's middle name two more times and referred to him as "a hack, Chicago-style Daley politician who's picturing himself as change." He said, "When he gets done with you, all you're going to have in your pocket is change."
Cunningham then mocked foreign policy statements of "Barack Hussein Obama," calling him the "fraud from Chicago" and saying that if Obama were to be elected president he would meet with the leaders of enemy nations. He continued by saying the "world leaders who want to kill us" will be "singing 'Kumbaya' together around the table with Barack Obama."
Later in his comments, he said there is a big difference between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bill Clinton's secretary of state, Madeleine K. Albright, "who looks like death warmed over." Albright is an adviser to Hillary Clinton's campaign.
On his radio show later in the day, Cunningham aimed his fire at McCain. "Now to have John McCain repudiate me when he didn't hear the remarks at all. . . . He just threw me under the bus to the national media. Well, I've had it with McCain. I'm going to endorse Hillary Clinton."
Cunningham disputed McCain's contention that they had never met, saying on CNN that they met twice in the past year. McCain spokesman Mark Salter said that the senator does not recall meeting Cunningham but that if they did meet, it was only briefly at fundraisers with several hundred people.
Obama's team played down the comments. "We appreciate Senator McCain's remarks," spokesman Bill Burton said. "It is a sign that if there is a McCain-Obama general election, it can be intensely competitive but the candidates will attempt to keep it respectful and focused on issues."
Nonetheless, the exchange was an example of the already intense competition between McCain and Obama even before either has locked up his party's nomination.
On a conference call later to discuss McCain's decision to withdraw from the public financing system, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis accused the Obama campaign of unfairly questioning the senator's ethical standards. "That is a line of attack that the Obama camp signaled early they were going to pursue," Davis said. "We're happy to debate ethical standards and commitment to reform and ethics all day long."
Davis later called Obama the only candidate who has "broken his word to the American public" by considering not joining the public financing system after initially indicating he would.
After McCain's speech at the rally Tuesday, Portman said that Cunningham is "often controversial" and that it did not surprise him that the radio host made such provocative comments.
But on stage earlier, Portman was effusive about Cunningham's speech. "Willie, you're out of control again. So, what else is new? But we love him," Portman told the crowd. "But I've got to tell you, Bill Cunningham lending his voice to this campaign is extremely important."
The speech by Cunningham followed comments by another supporter, a local prosecutor, who mocked Obama's lack of military service and his message of optimism in the campaign.
Joseph T. Deters called Obama the "presumptive Democratic candidate" and predicted that Obama's success will quickly fade as people see through his rhetoric. He said that will happen "after the vortex of love for this candidate stops -- and I feel so badly for the Clintons about this, don't you? -- and everybody sobers up and says what does this guy really stand for?"