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McCain Crisis Strategy: Go All In

The McCain campaign’s responses to the events of the last two days have revealed much about its strategy for dealing with crises. This strategy can be easily summed up: “At the first sign of trouble, go all in.”

This week was the first time Sen. Barack Obama really went after Sen. John McCain. First, with an ad released Wednesday linking McCain to Ralph Reed, a prominent associate of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Then again yesterday, with an ad hammering McCain on the “Housegate” controversy — when he was unable to recall just how many houses he had — and portraying him as out of touch with the troubles of ordinary Americans.

The McCain camp, in full-on damage control mode, immediately went to the big guns it had been saving for just such a situation. The campaign has been keeping three cards up its sleeve since Obama became the nominee in June, all involving controversial figures connected in varying degrees to Obama: former domestic terrorist William Ayers, convicted real-estate developer Tony Rezko and the senator’s former minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In the last 48 hours, the campaign trotted out two of them — and threatened the third.

Yesterday, a conservative group called the American Issues Project announced a massive $2.8 million buy for an ad linking Obama to Ayers — a former member of the Weathermen, the radical group responsible for bombings around the United States to protest the Vietnam War, during the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Without defending Ayers’ actions, it is worth noting that the only people the Weathermen’s bombs ever killed were their own members — by accident. After turning himself in to authorities in 1980, Ayers is now an education professor and activist in Chicago. Politico reported earlier this year that Obama attended an event at Ayers’ home before he ran for the Illinois State Senate in the mid-1990s, and the two remained casual friends — though Obama has condemned Ayers past actions. From Politico:

Now, as Obama runs for president, what two guests recall as an unremarkable gathering on the road to a minor elected office stands as a symbol of how swiftly he has risen from a man in the Hyde Park left to one closing in fast on the Democratic nomination for president.

“I can remember being one of a small group of people who came to Bill Ayers’ house to learn that Alice Palmer was stepping down from the senate and running for Congress,” said Dr. Quentin Young, a prominent Chicago physician and advocate for single-payer health care, of the informal gathering at the home of Ayers and his wife, Dohrn. “[Palmer] identified [Obama] as her successor.”

Obama and Palmer “were both there,” he said.

The AIP ad also draws a non-existent connection between Ayers and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The message: Obama is connected to Ayers, who was connected to bombings, which are a form of terrorism — and Islamic terrorists carried out 9/11. Therefore, Obama is connected to Islamic terrorists. Get it? To its credit, Fox News declined to run the spot yesterday.

Of course, it was not the McCain campaign that released this ad. However, in a Wednesday evening post on The McCain Report blog, McCain campaign blogger Michael Goldfarb posted a statement from McCain spokesman Brian Rogers, raising the Obama/Ayers connection in response to the Obama campaign’s Ralph Reed ad:

“Barack Obama’s ad is ridiculous. Because of John McCain, corruption was exposed and people like Jack Abramoff went to jail.

“However, if Barack Obama wants to have a discussion about truly questionable associations, let’s start with his relationship with the unrepentant terrorist William Ayers, at whose home Obama’s political career was reportedly launched. Mr. Ayers was a leader of the Weather Underground, a terrorist group responsible for countless bombings against targets including the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon and numerous police stations, courthouses and banks. In recent years, Mr. Ayers has stated, ‘I don’t regret setting bombs … I feel we didn’t do enough.’

It’s possible that the one-two punch on Ayers is a mere coincidence. It would also seem to be a distinct possibility that AIP had the ad in the can for a while, just waiting for the McCain campaign to say something about Ayers, and then — BAM! — get it on the air. However, a former senior McCain campaign adviser, Ed Failor Jr., is one of only two AIP board members listed on the group’s Website. Also noteworthy: According to ABC News, the AIP spokesman, Christian Pinkston, formerly worked with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who attacked Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

The McCain campaign trotted out the Ayers connection in response to a relatively minor threat — Obama’s Ralph Reed ad was only aired in Reed’s home state of Georgia — a relatively safe Republican state — where Reed had solicited donations from political associates on behalf of the McCain campaign. Of course, the ad was garnering national headlines about McCain’s support from an Abramoff crony — which explains the campaign’s desire to hit Obama hard on one of his own associates.

Similarly, McCain hit back with a vengeance against Obama’s “Housegate” ad — actually titled “Seven” — with the Rezko spot, which I discuss in detail here. Rezko is far more of a sore spot for the Obama campaign than Ayers, because Rezko’s ties to the Illinois senator are far more extensive and longstanding. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the two met in 1990 and Rezko was one of Obama’s major financial backers since the beginning of his political career in the mid-1990′s. Aside from Rev. Jeremiah Wright — Obama’s controversial former pastor — Rezko is likely the biggest piece of dirt the McCain campaign has on Obama.

Wright is the McCain campaign’s real “nuclear option.” Wright was Obama’s pastor for 20 years — and he officiated at Obama’s wedding and baptized his children. Though Obama has distanced himself from Wright and his inflammatory comments, in the eyes of many Republicans the preacher represents all the anti-Americanism and radical Black Nationalism that they have long, if subtly, sought to tie to Obama. It was telling that a McCain campaign official reportedly dropped Wright’s name into the mix yesterday. This means one thing: he’s definitely coming — probably the next time Obama does some real damage to McCain.

The problem for McCain is that there is still more than two months until the general election. With this much time left — and three debates still to come — there will likely be many opportunities for Obama to bloody McCain. McCain has already played the Ayers and Rezko cards, leaving him with just Wright. Each of these lines of attack will likely lose potency the more they are trotted out. From a strategic point of view McCain will have to wait for the right moment to use Wright for maximum benefit. If his campaign overreacts and releases a Wright ad too early — or too frequently; or if Obama has an effective counter-strategy for deflecting this attack, it could be wasted. Obviously, the last two days have demonstrated that the Obama campaign needs to have that strategy prepared and ready to go, if it hasn’t already. Though I’m sure it is.

The question remains: how far will Obama go in retaliating against such an attack? Will the Keating Five scandal — in which McCain was a central figure — show up in Obama’s ads? Time will tell. If this campaign continues on the negative path it is currently on, I would certainly not be surprised.

But even if — or when– that happens, McCain has demonstrated that when the attacks get personal, he is fully prepared to break out the brass knuckles.

A post on Pandagon [warning, foul language] yesterday sums up the situation nicely, I think:

It’s good to see that the McCain campaign’s response to the first punch [Obama]’s caught is to go apeshit nuclear out of the gate. He may go “Taxi Driver” on us by the time this is said and done.

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