Republican John McCain has accused White House rival Barack Obama of obfuscating his past and offering no track record to point a way out of America's deepening economic crisis.
Obama, responding to his portrayal by McCain's campaign as a crony of “terrorists,” fought fire with fire by highlighting his opponent's embroilment in a devastating 1980s financial scandal.
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But on the eve of the second presidential debate, McCain said: “I don't need lessons about telling the truth to the American people.
“And were I ever to need any improvement in that regard, I probably wouldn't seek advice from a Chicago olitician,” he said in remarks prepared for delivery at a rally here.
“All people want to know is: What has this man ever actually accomplished in government? What does he plan for merica? In short: Who is the real Barack Obama?
“But ask such questions and all you get in response is another barrage of angry insults.”
Second debate ahead
Tempers are frayed heading into this week's “town hall” clash, the second of three debates between Obama and McCain, in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Democrat's camp said the Republican, who is behind in the polls, was desperately trying to divert attention from his “erratic” handling of the US financial crisis by resorting to character assassination.
Speaking to reporters in Asheville, North Carolina, Obama noted that global markets were again tanking and the contagion was spreading to banks in Europe, and that voters wanted to hear policy solutions during the upcoming debate.
So he said he was “surprised” to see an unidentified McCain strategist tell the New York Daily News that “if we keep talking about the economic crisis, we lose”.
“I've got news for the McCain campaign, the American people are losing right now, they're losing their jobs, they're losing their health care, they're losing their homes, they're losing their savings,” the Democrat said.
“I cannot imagine anything more important to talk about than the economic crisis and the notion that we'd want to brush that aside and engage in the usual political shenanigans and scare tactics that have come to characterise too many political campaigns, I think is not what the American people are looking for.”
The McCain campaign has unleashed a blitz of negative ads to cast the Illinois senator as a radical liberal who would endanger the lives of US troops abroad and usher in a new era of interventionist, tax-raising government.
For the third day running, the Republican's camp hammered away at Obama's ties to professor of education William Ayers, a bomb-throwing militant during the Vietnam War.
Observers say the pair had only a loose relationship in Chicago's milieu of charity and politics. But McCain's running mate Sarah Palin, who is leading the charge, said the Democrat was consorting with an “unrepentant terrorist.”
Interviewed by African-American radio host Tom Joyner, Obama retorted: “If Senator McCain wants to have a character debate, I am happy to have that debate.”
McCain formally censured
The Arizona senator was reliant on corporate lobbyists to manage and advise his campaign, and that was more relevant to US voters than “somebody (Ayers) who's tangentially related to me,” Obama said.
Obama rolled out a new broadcast and email onslaught recalling McCain's connection to jailed tycoon Charles Keating, the collapse of whose savings and loan firm wiped out the savings of many elderly retirees.
McCain was part of a group of lawmakers known as the “Keating Five” that received gifts and favors from the businessman and intervened with regulators to insist his company was in good health before it collapsed.
McCain escaped with a formal censure by the Senate in 1991 but spoke of the searing embarrassment caused by the scandal and went on to become a crusader for ethics reform.
Overall, the US government had to spend 124 billion dollars to bail out the entire savings and loan industry.
“Sound familiar?” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said in an email to supporters, after Congress last week passed a 700-billion-dollar bailout for Wall Street and Monday began hearings into alleged malfeasance by top bankers.