For the past six months, McCain campaign strategists have been saying they are getting ready to play the "Ayers card" — that is, to attack Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., for his alleged association with the former Weather Underground radical William Ayers, who admitted bombing government buildings in 1960's.
For six months, they have largely held off. Until now.
It appears the McCain campaign is finally preparing to launch a forceful assault on Obama's character by portraying him as having a cozy relationship with a man it calls an "unrepentant terrorist," even though there is scant evidence that the two men were much more than acquaintances who happened to serve together on two not-for-profit boards several years ago.
But with McCain now trailing Obama in a number of key battleground states and time running short, it appears his campaign is finally preparing to play the Ayers card — whatever it is.
On Saturday, McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, accused Obama of "palling around" with a terrorist.
The Washington Post reported that a new McCain offensive to be launched this week will include an attack on Obama for his supposed connections to Ayers and his relationship with Rezko.
The late-game strategy appears to be try to sow doubts about the Democratic nominee under the general rubric of: "Who is Barack Obama?"
The Obama campaign says it is responding with a pre-emptive strike against McCain, with an ad calling him "out of touch on the economy" and wanting to "change the subject" to negative attacks.
Obama's putative ties to Ayers first came up back in April at the Democratic debate before the Pennsylvania primary, when ABC News' George Stephanopoulos asked Obama about it.
Obama said: "This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis. And the notion that somehow as a consequence of knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn't make much sense."
A few days later, on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," McCain commented on it.
"I'm sure he [Obama] is very patriotic," McCain said. "But his relationship with Mr. Ayers is open to question. ... 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 he had bombed more."
The "wished had bombed more" remark referred to something Ayers said in 2001 when asked about the bombs he admitted planting during his years as a radical.
Ayers told The New York Times: "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough."
Later, Ayers explained that what he meant was that the anti-war movement did not do enough to try to stop the war in Vietnam.
Neither Ayers nor his wife, Bernadette Dohrn, another former Weather Underground member, were ever convicted of any criminal charges related to the violent acts they were said to have committed.
What was known about Obama and Ayers' relationship was that Obama attended a political function at Ayers' home in Chicago in 1995. They served together on a couple of non-profit community service boards. Ayers contributed $200 to Obama's state Senate campaign in 2001.
But the McCain campaign kept suggesting there was more to it. Whenever McCain officials were asked what more they knew, they would say only that they were certain the relationship was closer than Obama described it.
McCain's senior advisers, Steve Schmidt and Charles Black, kept saying that at some point, McCain would attack Obama over Ayers. Obama's controversial former minister the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was off-limits, they said, but not Ayers because Ayers was a terrorist.
On occasion, McCain campaign officials would bring up Ayers. In May, with McCain under fire from Obama and others for having former and current lobbyists in his campaign, his campaign fired back by citing Ayers.
"Just a few years ago when Barack Obama was beginning his career in politics, he was launched it a the home of William Ayers, an unrepentant terrorist," said Tucker Bounds, a McCain campaign spokesman. "If Barack Obama is going to make associations the issue, we look forward to a debate about Senator Obama's associations."
But the expected major attack never happened.
Then, this past summer, a conservative group called The American Issues Project, some of whose members had ties to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign that attacked Sen. John Kerry in 2004, spent $2.8 million on television ads in Ohio that sought to link Obama to Ayers.
Independently, in late August, Schmidt told ABC News that the McCain campaign planned to start hitting Obama with both Ayers and Tony Rezko, a Chicago developer and Obama friend who was convicted on federal corruption charges in June.
About Ayers, Schmidt said: "(Obama) understates his relationship with him. He does have a relationship which is deeper than what's previously said about it. It's a fair issue to discuss."
Again, the promised attack didn't come. What may have held it off is that the McCain camp and the Republican National Committee, which has also been looking for damage evidence of a Obama-Ayers relationship, has never been able to find much more to than what is known: Obama was at Ayers's house once 13 years ago. They served together on two boards. Their children went to the same school.