Source: Telegraph

John McCain’s campaign has accused Barack Obama of consorting with terrorists, the first shot in a calculated programme of character assassination designed to revive his flagging presidential prospects.

The Republican candidate’s running mate Sarah Palin attacked Mr Obama for his links to Bill Ayres, the former terrorist-turned-education professor, whose Weather Underground group bombed the Pentagon in the 1960s, and with whom Mr Obama worked on community projects in the mid-1990s.

Mrs Palin said: “This is not a man who sees America as you see America and as I see America. Our opponent is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country. Americans need to know this.”

Her comments, at a fundraiser in Colorado, marked the first time the McCain campaign itself, rather than his allies in the wider conservative community, have questioned Mr Obama’s patriotism.

Mrs Palin was echoed by McCain ally Mike Huckabee, the former presidential candidate, who said: “If you hang out with somebody who has never apologised for bombing the Pentagon and the Capitol and is proud of something he should have been ashamed of, then it calls into question your judgment.”

They spoke out after the New York Times ran an article saying Mr Obama had “played down” his links with Mr Ayres.

A spokesman for Mr Obama camp condemned what they called Mrs Palin’s “shameless attack” and pointed out that the same story concluded that Mr Obama “is not close to Bill Ayres, much less pals and that he string condemned the despicable acts Ayres committed 40 years ago when Obama was eight.”

The move comes amid growing panic in the McCain campaign and signs that Mr McCain’s closest aides do not believe he can win the race for the White House in a “fair fight”.

The Sunday Telegraph knows of at least three occasions in the past month when members of his inner circle have said they fear he is doomed. Voters have flocked to Mr Obama in the economic crisis, and Mr McCain has lost the lead in several key swing states that he must win if he is to have any chance of victory in November.

A former McCain strategist, familiar with the senator’s tactical discussions, told The Sunday Telegraph he would pursue the “nuclear option”, attacking Mr Obama personally in the campaign’s last four weeks.

He said: “We were doing well when this election was all about Obama. The last two weeks have been more about John and we need to shift the focus back. There are real questions for Obama to answer. Also, it’s the only way we win. It’s the nuclear option but votes are firming up. It’s now or never.”

In the second presidential debate on Tuesday, Mr McCain will “take the gloves off”, seeking to brand Mr Obama as an old fashioned tax-and-spend liberal.

Greg Strimple, a senior adviser to Mr McCain, confirmed the change of direction. “We’re looking for a very aggressive last 30 days. We’re turning the page on this financial crisis and getting back to discussing Mr Obama’s liberal record and how he will be too risky for Americans.”

Mr Obama has a six-point national poll lead and has moved ahead in Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, North Carolina and Missouri, all won by George Bush in 2004.

Behind the scenes a mood of grim pessimism has gripped McCain staff. Mrs Palin’s perky television debate performance was the one bright spot of Mr McCain’s week, but polls show her folksy charm did little to win over floating voters. The strategist said: “Everyone’s saying she stopped the bleeding. But you’ve got to do more than stop the bleeding when your leg’s already fallen off.”

But the onslaught against Mr Obama’s patriotism, a move Mr McCain said he would never countenance, will revive claims that his campaign is a series of impulsive outbursts by an increasingly desperate man.

McCain biographer Matt Welch said: “McCain’s all over the map. What we see from McCain is anger and incoherence and publicity stunts.”

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