For a man who boasts of delivering "straight talk," John McCain was sending mixed messages. Supporters who gathered earlier this month outside Milwaukee thought he needed to amp up his campaign rhetoric. One by one, they stood and railed against the "shady characters" linked to Barack Obama. The crowd roared its approval when McCain blasted Obama's ties to William Ayers, the former Weather Underground radical. But then James T. Harris, an African-American host of a conservative radio show, urged him to hit Obama's "soft spot." "It's absolutely vital that you take it to Obama," Harris said. "We have the good Reverend [Jeremiah] Wright … I am begging you, sir. I am begging you. Take it to him." McCain looked uncertain, pausing ever so slightly. "Yes, I'll do that," he said. But then he promptly changed the subject to the economy.
Top aides to McCain share the dismay of his hard-core supporters. Many senior advisers, as well as McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, believe the campaign should remind voters of Obama's ties to Wright, whose inflammatory sermons emerged as a problem for the Democratic nominee during the primary. "If we were to go up with an ad during the final weeks of this campaign just showing excerpts of [Wright's] sermons, we would probably win," says one senior McCain aide, who declined to be named discussing internal debates on tactics. "But we won't."
McCain has refused to do it. The main reason, according to two aides who did not want to be named discussing private conversations with the candidate: any attack could be viewed as racially insensitive—or stir up racist sentiments—and that gets personal for McCain. He has not forgotten the racial smear directed at his own family during the South Carolina primary in 2000, when he ran against George W. Bush. Back then, supporters of Bush (their precise identities were never known) papered cars outside churches and McCain events with nasty fliers. They suggested his adopted daughter, Bridget—who was then just eight years old—was in fact his illegitimate child by a black prostitute. The McCains were sickened about the impact this might have on Bridget and planned to wait until she was much older to tell her about it. Not long ago, Bridget, who is now 17, found out what had happened when she Googled herself.
There are probably other factors at play, too, in McCain's thinking. Bringing up Wright at this point would open his campaign to charges of hypocrisy and even desperation. Last spring, McCain himself condemned the North Carolina Republican Party for running an ad featuring Wright's sermons, including one in which the preacher said, railing against the treatment of blacks, "No, no, no. Not God bless America. Goddam America." McCain trashed the ad, saying it "degrades our civics and distracts us from the very real differences we have with Democrats."
Shortly after the North Carolina ad ran, Obama said on "Meet the Press" that Wright was a "legitimate political issue." At that point, McCain criticized some of Wright's more extreme views—including, as he put it, likening U.S. Marines to the Roman legionnaires "responsible for the death of our savior." But McCain also said that he didn't believe Obama shared Wright's "world view." His comments prompted pushback from the Obama campaign nonetheless. Spokespeople said McCain was contradicting his earlier position that Wright shouldn't be an issue. In May, Obama broke his ties to Wright after the pastor restated some controversial views to the National Press Club.
McCain won't try to stop independent groups from hammering Obama on his former association with Wright. Last week, the Republican Jewish Coalition began running ads suggesting Obama had surrounded himself with advisers who are "anti-Israel." The ad includes a photo of Obama with Wright, captioned HOSTILE TO AMERICA. The McCain campaign said it would not ask the group to desist. "Senator McCain's position on Wright is very clear," says spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker. "He's not the referee in this race."
The debate over Wright within the campaign is part of a larger conflict over how negative McCain should go in the final weeks before the vote. In spite of polls showing that McCain has been losing support among swing voters, senior advisers remain split over whether character attacks have benefited their candidate. Last week, McCain scaled back on the attacks, focusing more on his own proposals. That may or may not help him win. But looking back after Nov. 4, McCain will likely argue that no matter what happened, he did the right thing.