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CULTURAL POLITICS

McCain Questions Obama Remark Comparing '60s Radical, Lawmaker

McCain, on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," argued Obama holds values that are out of the mainstream.
McCain, on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," argued Obama holds values that are out of the mainstream. (By Lauren Victoria Burke -- ABC Via Getty Images)

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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 21, 2008

Sen. John McCain highlighted Sen. Barack Obama's affiliation with a Vietnam-era radical yesterday, the latest indication that the general election campaign is likely to see a heavy dose of cultural politics.

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In his appearance on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," the presumptive GOP presidential nominee questioned why Obama (D-Ill.) had compared William Ayers -- an academic who belonged to the Weather Underground, a violent group opposed to the Vietnam War -- to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a McCain backer who has said he supports the death penalty for abortion providers.

During last week's Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia, Obama deflected a question about Ayers, saying it was akin to asking whether he endorses the positions of Coburn, a senator with whom he is cordial and "who during his campaign once said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions. Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn's statements? Because I certainly don't agree with those, either."

Yesterday, McCain (Ariz.) drew a sharp distinction between Ayers and Coburn, arguing that Obama's analogy showed the Illinois Democrat holds values that are out of the mainstream.

Obama's relationship with Ayers, McCain told Stephanopoulos, "is open to question. . . . Because if you're going to associate and have as a friend and serve on a board and have a guy kick off your campaign that says he's unrepentant, that he wished bombed more -- and then, the worst thing of all, that, I think, really indicates Senator Obama's attitude, is he had the incredible statement that he compared Mr. Ayers, an unrepentant terrorist, with Senator Tom Coburn, Senator Coburn, a physician who goes to Oklahoma on the weekends and brings babies into life -- comparing those two -- I mean, that's not -- that's an attitude, frankly, that certainly isn't in keeping with the overall attitude."

Obama's campaign, meanwhile, accused McCain of adopting the kind of campaign tactics George W. Bush used against the Arizona senator in their primary showdown eight years ago.

"Unable to sell his out-of-touch ideas on the economy and Iraq, John McCain has stooped to the same smear politics and low road that he denounced in 2000," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "The American people can't afford a third term of President Bush's failed policies and divisive tactics."

The comments underscored the enormous generational gulf between the two men -- a contest between them would represent the largest age gap between two presidential candidates in U.S. history -- but differences dating back four decades are likely to be in play regardless of the outcome of the Democratic contest. McCain has already poked fun at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) on this point: during a GOP presidential debate last fall shortly after Clinton backed spending $1 million in federal funds on a museum commemorating the 1969 Woodstock music festival.

"Now my friends, I wasn't there. I'm sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event," McCain told the debate audience, pausing before making reference to his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "I was tied up at the time."

As he prepares for the November campaign, McCain appears to be regaining his financial footing. Aides announced yesterday that he had raised just over $15 million in March and finished the month with $11.6 million in cash on hand.


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