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McCain Plans Fiercer Strategy Against Obama

"You're going to learn a lot" in next week's debate, Sen. John McCain promised supporters in Pueblo, Colo. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)
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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4, 2008

Sen. John McCain and his Republican allies are readying a newly aggressive assault on Sen. Barack Obama's character, believing that to win in November they must shift the conversation back to questions about the Democrat's judgment, honesty and personal associations, several top Republicans said.

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With just a month to go until Election Day, McCain's team has decided that its emphasis on the senator's biography as a war hero, experienced lawmaker and straight-talking maverick is insufficient to close a growing gap with Obama. The Arizonan's campaign is also eager to move the conversation away from the economy, an issue that strongly favors Obama and has helped him to a lead in many recent polls.

"We're going to get a little tougher," a senior Republican operative said, indicating that a fresh batch of television ads is coming. "We've got to question this guy's associations. Very soon. There's no question that we have to change the subject here," said the operative, who was not authorized to discuss strategy and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Being so aggressive has risks for McCain if it angers swing voters, who often say they are looking for candidates who offer a positive message about what they will do. That could be especially true this year, when frustration with Washington politics is acute and a desire for specifics on how to fix the economy and fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is strong.

Robert Gibbs, a top Obama adviser, dismissed the new McCain strategy. "This isn't 1988," he said. "I don't think the country is going to be distracted by the trivial." He added that Obama will continue to focus on the economy, saying that Americans will remain concerned about the country's economic troubles even as the Wall Street crisis eases somewhat.

Moments after the House of Representatives approved a bailout package for Wall Street on Friday afternoon, the McCain campaign released a television ad that challenges Obama's honesty and asks, "Who is Barack Obama?" The ad alleges that "Senator Obama voted 94 times for higher taxes. Ninety-four times. He's not truthful on taxes." The charge that Obama voted 94 times for higher taxes has been called misleading by independent fact-checkers, who have noted that the majority of those votes were on nonbinding budget resolutions.

A senior campaign official called the ad "just the beginning" of commercials that will "strike the new tone" in the campaign's final days. The official said the "aggressive tone" will center on the question of "whether this guy is ready to be president."

McCain's only positive commercial, called "Original Mavericks," has largely been taken off the air, according to Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political ads.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's performance at Thursday night's debate embodied the new approach, as she used every opportunity to question Obama's honesty and fitness to serve as president. At one point she said, "Barack Obama voted against funding troops [in Iraq] after promising that he would not do so."

Palin kept up the attack yesterday, saying in an interview on Fox News that Obama is "reckless" and that some of what he has said, "in my world, disqualifies someone from consideration as the next commander in chief."

McCain hinted Thursday that a change is imminent, perhaps as soon as next week's debate. Asked at a Colorado town hall, "When are you going to take the gloves off?" the candidate grinned and replied, "How about Tuesday night?"

Yesterday in Pueblo, Colo., McCain made clear that he intends to press Obama on a variety of familiar GOP themes during the debate, as he accused the Democrat once again of getting ready to raise taxes and increase government spending.


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