WASHINGTON -- Republican John McCain's aggressive telephone campaign against Democrat Barack Obama on character issues ignited a wide-ranging response Wednesday from the Obama camp, which denounced the calls and launched its own automated "robo-calls."
The McCain calls portray Obama as an abortion extremist who won't keep the country safe and "worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home and killed Americans."
The calls, read live in states that ban robo-calls, started this month in battleground states. In a new call Wednesday, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani says Obama is soft on criminals.
Wisconsin voters started hearing Wednesday from Obama's side. Jeri Watermolen of Green Bay says in a taped message: "Like you, I've been getting sleazy phone calls and mail from John McCain and his supporters viciously — and falsely — attacking Barack Obama." She says she no longer supports McCain.
The Obama campaign circulated news reports about people in Wisconsin and West Virginia who lost their jobs after refusing to read the Ayers script, and about a fourth Republican senator criticizing McCain's calls.
They "have no place in campaigns," Lindsay Gilbride, spokeswoman for Oregon's Gordon Smith, told The Huffington Post. Minnesota's Norm Coleman and Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe also objected.
Robo-calls are a political fixture and an irritating one, as Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin has said. At least 12 states limit or ban them.
During the 2000 South Carolina primary, unidentified opponents targeted McCain with false claims in robo-calls. Back then, he called them "hate calls."
A company that made some of those calls is now making calls against Obama, financial reports show.
McCain says his calls are accurate and raise important questions about Obama's trustworthiness. "He was friends with a terrorist and his wife. He was. And we need to know the full relationship," McCain said Tuesday on CBS' Early Show.
Obama was a child when Ayers belonged to the Weather Underground and has called the group's activities despicable. Ayers, now an education professor, served on two charity boards with Obama and hosted a political gathering for him in 1995.
Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., urged Wednesday that McCain "stop the dirty tactics of linking Sen. Obama in fliers and robo-calls to unfavorable elements." Democratic running mate Joe Biden implored him Tuesday to "bring down those robo-calls. If it's about the economy, argue about the economy, not about Barack Obama's character."
GOP pollster Whit Ayres said McCain's robo-calls raise relevant issues.
"Barack Obama's associations are a window into his values and his judgment," he said, adding he doesn't have enough data to judge whether the approach is "tactically smart."
Independent pollster Scott Rasmussen noted "very slight but consistent" improvement for McCain since Oct. 11. In Florida, three polls show McCain drawing even with Obama. Obama has leads in several national polls and in many key states.
Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Austin, said the Ayers charge is buried by the Wall Street crisis. When voters fixate on a problem, "candidates can't change the subject," he says. "Public anxiety neutralizes diversionary attacks."