By claiming that Democrat Barack Obama is "palling around with terrorists" and doesn’t see the U.S. like other Americans, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin targeted key goals for a faltering campaign.
And though she may have scored a political hit each time, her attack was unsubstantiated and carried a racially tinged subtext that John McCain himself may come to regret.
First, Palin’s attack shows that her energetic debate with rival Joe Biden may be just the beginning, not the end, of a sharpened role in the battle to win the presidency.
"Our opponent … is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country," Palin told a group of donors in Englewood, Colo. A deliberate attempt to smear Obama, McCain’s ticket-mate echoed the line at three separate events Saturday.
"This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America," she said. "We see America as a force of good in this world. We see an America of exceptionalism."
Obama isn’t above attacking McCain’s character with loaded words, releasing an ad on Sunday that calls the Arizona Republican "erratic" — a hard-to miss suggestion that McCain’s age, 72, might be an issue.
"Our financial system in turmoil," an announcer says in Obama’s new ad. "And John McCain? Erratic in a crisis. Out of touch on the economy."
A harsh and plainly partisan judgment, certainly, but not on the level of suggesting that a fellow senator is un-American and even a friend of terrorists.
In her character attack, Palin questions Obama’s association with William Ayers, a member of the Vietnam-era Weather Underground. Her reference was exaggerated at best if not outright false. No evidence shows they were "pals" or even close when they worked on community boards years ago and Ayers hosted a political event for Obama early in his career.
Obama, who was a child when the Weathermen were planting bombs, has denounced Ayers’ radical views and actions.
With her criticism, Palin is taking on the running mate’s traditional role of attacker, said Rich Galen, a Republican strategist.
"There appears to be a newfound sense of confidence in Sarah Palin as a candidate, given her performance the other night," Galen said. "I think that they are comfortable enough with her now that she’s got the standing with the electorate to take off after Obama."
Second, Palin’s incendiary charge draws media and voter attention away from the worsening economy. It also comes after McCain supported a pork-laden Wall Street bailout plan in spite of conservative anger and his own misgivings.
"It’s a giant changing of the subject," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist. "The problem is the messenger. If you want to start throwing fire bombs, you don’t send out the fluffy bunny to do it. I think people don’t take Sarah Palin seriously."
The larger purpose behind Palin’s broadside is to reintroduce the question of Obama’s associations. Millions of voters, many of them open to being swayed to one side or the other, are starting to pay attention to an election a month away.
For the McCain campaign, that makes Obama’s ties to Ayers as well as convicted felon Antoin "Tony" Rezko and the controversial minister Jeremiah Wright ripe for renewed criticism. And Palin brings a fresh voice to the argument.
Effective character attacks have come earlier in campaigns. In June 1988, Republican George H.W. Bush criticized Democrat Michael Dukakis over the furlough granted to Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who then raped a woman and stabbed her companion. Related TV ads followed in September and October.
The Vietnam-era Swift Boat veterans who attacked Democrat John Kerry’s war record started in the spring of 2004 and gained traction in late summer.
"The four weeks that are left are an eternity. There’s plenty of time in the campaign," said Republican strategist Joe Gaylord. "I think it is a legitimate strategy to talk about Obama and to talk about his background and who he pals around with."
Palin’s words avoid repulsing voters with overt racism. But is there another subtext for creating the false image of a black presidential nominee "palling around" with terrorists while assuring a predominantly white audience that he doesn’t see their America?
In a post-Sept. 11 America, terrorists are envisioned as dark-skinned radical Muslims, not the homegrown anarchists of Ayers’ day 40 years ago. With Obama a relative unknown when he began his campaign, the Internet hummed with false e-mails about ties to radical Islam of a foreign-born candidate.
Whether intended or not by the McCain campaign, portraying Obama as "not like us" is another potential appeal to racism. It suggests that the Hawaiian-born Christian is, at heart, un-American.
The fact is that when racism creeps into the discussion, it serves a purpose for McCain. As the fallout from Wright’s sermons showed earlier this year, forcing Obama to abandon issues to talk about race leads to unresolved arguments about America’s promise to treat all people equally.
John McCain occasionally says he looks back on decisions with regret. He has apologized for opposing a holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. He has apologized for refusing to call for the removal of a Confederate flag from South Carolina’s Capitol.
When the 2008 campaign is over will McCain say he regrets appeals such as Palin’s? ___
Douglass K. Daniel is a writer and editor with the Washington bureau of The Associated Press.