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Monday, October 13, 2008

McCain tussles with Palin over whipping up a mob mentality

Video: the second presidential debate in 10 easy minutes

With his electoral prospects fading by the day, Senator John McCain has fallen out with his vice-presidential running mate about the direction of his White House campaign.

McCain has become alarmed about the fury unleashed by Sarah Palin, the moose-hunting “pitbull in lipstick”, against Senator Barack Obama. Cries of “terrorist” and “kill him” have accompanied the tirades by the governor of Alaska against the Democratic nominee at Republican rallies.

Mark Salter, McCain’s long-serving chief of staff, is understood to have told campaign insiders that he would prefer his boss, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, to suffer an “honourable defeat” rather than conduct a campaign that would be out of character – and likely to lose him the election.

Palin, 44, has led the character attacks on Obama in the belief that McCain may be throwing away the election and her chance of becoming vice-president. Her supporters think that if the Republican ticket loses on November 4, she should run for president in 2012.

A leading Republican consultant said: “A lot of conservatives are grumbling about what a poor job McCain is doing. They are rolling their eyes and saying, ‘Yes, a miracle could happen, but at this rate it is all over’.

“Sarah Palin is no fool. She sees the same thing and wants to salvage what she can. She is positioning herself for the future. Her best days could be in front of her. She wants to look as though she was the fighter, the person with the spunk who was out there taking it to the Democrats.”

McCain, 72, has encouraged voters to contrast his character with Obama’s. The campaign launched a tough television commercial last week questioning, “Who is Barack Obama?”

Frank Keating, McCain’s campaign co-chairman, last week called the Democrat a “guy off the street” and said he should admit that he had “used cocaine”.

McCain believes the attacks have spun out of control. At a rally in Lakeville, Minnesota, the Arizona senator became visibly angry when he was booed for calling Obama “a decent person”. He took the microphone from an elderly woman who said she disliked Obama because he was “Arab”, saying, “No ma’am, no ma’am”.

When another questioner demanded that he tell the truth about Obama, he said: “I want everybody to be respectful and let’s be sure we are.”

However, his campaign has stepped up its negative advertising against Obama, accusing him of lying about his relationship with William Ayers, the leader of the Weather Underground group responsible for bombing the Capitol and the Pentagon in the early 1970s, who is now a Chicago professor.

Palin has continued to lead the charge against Obama’s alleged lack of candour. At a rally in Wilmington, Ohio, she mocked him for attending a supporters’ meeting in Ayers’s home when he was seeking to become an Illinois state senator in 1995. “He didn’t know he launched his career in the living room of a domestic terrorist until he did know,” Palin said.

“Some will say, jeez Sarah, it’s getting negative. No it’s not negativity. It’s truthfulness.” The crowd bellowed its appreciation with chants of “Nobama” and “Go Sarah Go!”

John Weaver, a former senior McCain adviser who left the campaign when it almost imploded in the summer of last year, questioned the purpose of the attacks.

“People need to understand, for moral reasons and the protection of our civil society, that the differences with Senator Obama are ideological, based on clear differences on policy and a lack of experience compared with Senator McCain,” he said.

“And from a purely practical political vantage point, please find me a swing voter, an undecided independent, or a torn female voter that finds an angry mob mentality attractive.”

A McCain official confirmed that there was dissension in the campaign. “There is always going to be a debate about the costs and benefits of any strategy,” he said.

“After November 4, the feelings of individuals will come to light. It is only natural and will be expected.”

Palin’s frustration with McCain has led to clashes over strategy. When she learnt he was pulling resources from Michigan, an industrial swing state leaning heavily in Obama’s favour, she fired off an e-mail saying, “Oh come on, do we have to?” and offered to travel there with her husband Todd, four-times winner of the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snow-mobile race.

She also told Bill Kristol, the conservative New York Times columnist, that she wished the campaign would make more of Obama’s 20-year association with the Rev Jeremiah Wright, his controversial former pastor, who said, “God damn America”.

“To me, that does say something about character,” Palin said. “But you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring it up.”

McCain’s allies responded by suggesting that she had her own pastor problems, such as the African minister who prayed to Jesus to protect her from witchcraft when she was running for governor.

McCain has told his campaign that attacks on religion are out of bounds. He declined Palin’s advice to “take the gloves” off in his debate with Obama last week and did not refer to Ayers. It enabled Obama to rile McCain by asking why he did not have the nerve to attack him to his face.

When McCain finally got round to mentioning the Weatherman at a rally last week, he described him mildly as “an old washed-up terrorist”.

Despite the attacks, Obama, 47, increased his average poll lead last week to eight points over McCain. The assaults on his character have enabled him to criticise McCain for “stoking anger and division” when the economy is collapsing.

McCain’s nosedive in the polls has closely tracked the collapse of Wall Street and the US economy, but he has yet to find a winning economic policy. His proposed emergency $300 billion (£180 billion) buy-out of distressed mortgages has been harshly criticised by Republicans.

Karl Rove, the former White House aide, claimed the housing bailout “came across as both impulsive and badly explained” when McCain suddenly announced it during last week’s debate with Obama.

A spokesman for McCain denied he and Palin had fallen out over her aggressive attacks. “Vice-presidential candidates are typically the tip of the spear and further out in front than the candidate for president. This is pretty standard fare,” he said.

However, Palin is no longer helping to attract women and independent voters to the Republican ticket. A poll for Fox News last week showed that while 47% of voters regard the Alaska governor favourably, 42% now have an unfavourable opinion of her.

Palin remains far more popular than McCain with the Republican party base. He regularly has to endure the spectacle of members of the audience leaving for their cars when it is his turn to speak at joint rallies.

In Wilmington, Palin’s many admirers were in no doubt that she should run for president next time. Nancy Ross, a hairdresser, 45, said if the Republicans lost the election, she would be cheered up by the thought of Palin as the 2012 nominee.

“I would absolutely love her to run in four years’ time. By then most of her kids will be grown,” she said. “I’d like her to run against Hillary [Clinton]. She would squash her. She is a real person and we need people like her in Washington.”

Mary Ann Black, 58, a human resources director, said: “I love her. She’s so authentic.” Although she thought highly of McCain as well, Black added: “Her career is just beginning and his is in the twilight.”

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