McCain Mum on Former Pastor

By Steven A. Holmes and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 11, 2008

As John McCain's campaign hits hard at some of Barack Obama's past associations, one person closely tied to the Democratic candidate is conspicuously absent from the attacks: the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. It is an omission that some Republican strategists and McCain supporters find puzzling and frustrating.

In advertisements, in Web videos and on the campaign trail, McCain repeatedly heaps scorn on Obama for his ties to convicted Chicago financier Antoin "Tony" Rezko and to William Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, the violent 1970s radical group. The Republican nominee never mentions Wright, the controversial black minister once described by Obama as his spiritual adviser and whom some strategists see as better target than Rezko or Ayers.

McCain made it clear this spring, after Wright's inflammatory sermons became a problem for Obama, that he was opposed to making the pastor a campaign issue. When the North Carolina Republican Party aired an ad using clips of Wright's sermons to cast Obama as an extremist, McCain condemned the commercial at a town hall meeting.

"All I can do is publicly state that that is not in keeping with the tradition of the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan," McCain said. "And I will bring every pressure to bear that I can to stop it."

And in a letter to the state party chair, McCain said the ad "degrades our civics and distracts us from the very real differences we have with the Democrats."

McCain's reluctance to bring up Wright was on display this week at a rally in Waukesha, Wis. There, a black radio talk show host beseeched the candidate to make an issue of the "shady characters" once affiliated with Obama, mentioning Wright by name.

"I am begging you, sir, I am begging you," said James T. Harris, who hosts a radio show in Milwaukee.

McCain changed the subject to the economy.

"When your spiritual adviser is behaving like a race-baiting hatemonger, that's something voters should know about," said Alex Vogel, a Republican strategist who is not affiliated with the McCain campaign.

Another Republican strategist, who did not want to be identified criticizing the campaign, was more pointed. "It's just silly," he said. "If you're going to play the association game, play the association game.

"There is a much tighter connection, both in terms of their relationship and in terms of the politics of it, between Obama and Reverend Wright than between Obama and William Ayers," the strategist said. "Most people these days think the Weather Underground was a band."

Even McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, has suggested that the campaign ought to make more of Obama's links to Wright. In an interview this week, she told columnist William Kristol, "I don't know why that association isn't discussed more." But, she added, "I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up."

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