Axelrod on Ayers, Keating, and John McCain: ‘The Bigger the Challenges We Face, the Smaller Their Campaign Gets’

By Natalie Gewargis

Oct 7, 2008 3:13pm

David Axelrod, the senior adviser to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., came back on the campaign plane this morning — O Force One — to chat about the debate and to set expectations (low for his boss, high for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.)

Axelrod said Obama is prepared for McCain — who’s been attacking Obama’s character very directly this week, calling Obama a liar and a hypocrite, his running mate saying Obama is "palling around with terrorists" — to keep that tone at tonight’s town hall meeting.

McCain has "signaled to his supporters that he’s going to be very aggressive," Axelrod said, "that he’s going to take the gloves off.”

Obama wants to talk to Americans about the economy, said the adviser. 

"We’re going to talk about that, we’re going to talk about the issues that are important to the American people. But we’re prepared for a very aggressive debate.”

Is Obama prepared to talk about his relationship with former Weather Underground member/current education professor William Ayers, the previously mentioned "terrorist" that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been attacking Obama for knowing?

“The senator is going to be prepared to speak to whatever comes up if Sen. McCain or anyone else chooses to bring that up," Axelrod said. "If that comes up he’ll be ready to discuss that, but one hopes that the focus of this debate will be the issues that touch on the lives of the American people.”

Palin has been attacking Obama for comments Axelrod made that ran on CNN yesterday suggesting that when Obama first met with Ayers at his home in 1995, he didn’t know the professor’s history. The Alaska governor has been blurring what Axelrod said to make it seem as though Obama was claiming that he didn’t know about Ayers’ history until recently, which is not what Axelrod said. Not that there’s been any clear explanation of this relationship forthcoming from the Obama campaign.

So, when did Obama find out that Ayers had been a member of an organization the FBI called a "domestic terrorist" group, and had been, for years, a fugitive from the law?

“I don’t know," Axelrod said. "I mean it was sometime after their first meetings. And you know, he became aware of it. I don’t know the exact moment.”

He wasn’t aware of who "Ayers" was?

"Yeah," Axelrod said, "I mean, the fact is that like a lot of people who, you know, didn’t live through that era — particularly those who didn’t live though that era in Chicago — It just wasn’t. I mean, when he came to Chicago, Ayers was advising Mayor Daley on school reform issues, and that was his profile, was that he was an expert on education."

So, did he know who Ayers was when he went to his home in 1995?

“My understanding is that when he went there, he did not," Axelrod said.

Reporters noticed that clause — "my understanding is" — and pressed further. Did Axelrod ask Obama if he knew Ayers’ history when he first met with him?

"Yes," Axelrod said.

And he did not know?

"Yes," Axelrod said. "That’s what I’ve said –- I answered the question when I was asked the other day. But no one’s suggesting that he never knew. I mean that’s not — we weren’t offering that. I wasn’t offering it -– I was asked a question that you just asked me and just answered it. I wasn’t making an argument about it."

Axelrod said that Obama is expecting attacks tonight.

"He understands where this campaign is at and rarely has a campaign been as explicit as the McCain campaign has been about what their tactics are all about," said the adviser. "They essentially announced to newspapers that they feel like, if this campaign is a discussion of the economic crisis facing America, then he’ll lose and that they need to try to create a distraction to divert the discussion from the economy.”

But isn’t Obama fighting mud with mud by brining up McCain’s history with the Keating Five scandal?

"The Keating case is pretty germane to the discussion we’re having right now," Axelrod said. "The Keating issue was one in which Sen. McCain intervened with regulators on behalf of a financial institution that ultimately collapsed and the taxpayers were left holding the bill. Many, many people lost their savings, their homes, and so on. So, it is a germane issues, it’s not an abstraction. Now look, are there broader issues that need to be discussed? Yes and we’re discussing them. We’re the campaign that’s actually running positive ads. The McCain campaign doesn’t even pretend to make a case for John McCain anymore, they’re running all negative ads.”

Will Obama bring up Keating tonight?

“I don’t think he’ll shy away from a discussion of it if it comes up," Axelrod said. “The American people know who’s running a positive campaign about the future of the country, about the change we need, and who’s desperately throwing lefts and rights hoping to score a knockout because he thinks he’s behind in the game."

McCain, Axelrod said, has "turned to plan B, which is to throw as much negative out there as possible — to send his vice presidential candidate out there as a kind of tip of the spear in this negative campaign.”

Axelrod said the GOP-pushed controversy about Obama’s small donors — that some of them have kicked in so many small donations, they’ve exceeded maximum limits, and questions about whether some of them are non U.S. citizens — is another distraction. McCain discloses the names of donors who give less than $200; Obama does not.

"I know Sen. McCain may not know this," Axelrod said, "but you can get on the Internet — actually, you can get on anywhere in the world. That’s the thing about the Internet. And you can buy a t-shirt wherever they live … and we monitor those things as best we can."

Axelrod said it is "unbelievable … given the times in which we live and the problems that we face, that this is how they are spending their time as a campaign. It seems like the bigger the challenges we face, the smaller their campaign gets.”

The Obama senior strategist said that the reason Palin has been campaigning in Nebraska, Florida, and North Carolina is because the McCain-Palin campaign is "being offensive but they’re not really playing offense. They’re playing defense." But he insisted the Obama campaign isn’t overconfident.

"Obviously, we like the position that we’re in, but we understand that we have to battle every day … If I took the polls to heart, I would have jumped off a tall building about a year ago when we were 30 points behind during the nomination, so we don’t get too intoxicated when the polls are encouraging.”

– Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller

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