December 8, 2008 -- Even as his campaign fell far behind in the polls, Sen. John McCain refused to authorize the use of a fully-produced 30-second television commercial that criticized Barack Obama for his relationship with the controversial pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
A copy of the spot, obtained by ABC News, indicates the campaign spent the time and money necessary to produce a polished final tape, even after McCain publicly said the pastor should not be made a campaign issue and that he wanted to run a "respectful" campaign. His aides told ABC News that McCain simply decided "he did not want to touch" the Rev. Wright issue.
But the commercial even includes the tag line: "I'm John McCain and I approve this message."
"McCain never saw the ad and it was never considered for air, period," said McCain's top campaign strategist Steve Schmidt. Schmidt told ABC News he recalls seeing the commercial but did not push McCain to approve it.
The commercial, produced by GOP media strategist Fred Davis, contrasts McCain and Obama "long before anyone" knew who they were and seeks to frame the issue as one of "character, especially when no one is looking."
Over black and white footage of McCain, the announcer says, "One chose to honor his fellow soldiers by refusing to walk out of a prisoner of war camp."
Over footage of Obama and Reverend Wright's church in Chicago, the announcer says, "the other chose not to even walk out of a church where a pastor was spewing hatred."
A brief clip of Rev. Wright's now well-known sound bite follows, "Not God Bless America, but God Damn America."
"The contrast of characters (of McCain and Obama) could have been an important part of the campaign if raised early on," Davis said.
In the final month of his campaign, many in the GOP, including his vice-presidential running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, urged the campaign to raise Rev. Wright as an issue.
In apparent frustration, a number of GOP-connected campaign groups produced their own Rev. Wright commercials and paid for their broadcast in the final weeks of the campaign.
The Debate Rages on in GOP Circles
But McCain still refused to give his campaign the authority to run its commercial and it stayed on the shelf, according to former campaign staff members.
"You have to give John McCain credit that he stuck to his guns like that and he did not pull the trigger on an ad like that," said GOP consultant Matthew Dowd, also an ABC News consultant.
But the debate still rages in GOP circles.
"I think it was a mistake," said GOP campaign strategist Mark Corallo of McCain's decision to steer clear of the Rev. Wright issue.
"As the Rev. Wright controversy developed, had they used an ad like that and then built on it and done more ads and developed more information, forced the media for instance to ask more questions about Barack Obama's association with the Rev. Wright and others, it would have had an impact," he said. Corallo is a former Bush administration official who now owns Corallo Comstock, a public relations firm in Alexandria, Virginia.
Political consultants say it is not unusual for campaigns to prepare rough first-draft versions of television commercials that are never put through final production steps and broadcast, for a variety of reasons.
The Rev. Wright commercial, however, was in final form.
"Someone took this pretty far along the way," said ABC News consultant Dowd.
Eric Longabardi is a freelance journalist who is a frequent contributor to the ABCNews.com investigative page.