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US Election Countdown Diary
Al Jazeera's daily analysis of all the news from the US presidential election.
Last Modified: 16 Oct 2008 06:14 GMT

Welcome to our US Election Countdown Diary, Al Jazeera's daily analysis of what's happening in the run-up to the US presidential elections as voters prepare to elect their 44th president on November 4.

With news, views and a healthy degree of scepticism, we'll be bringing you the latest on the elections from across the US and the world.

Camille Elhassani, Washington, 25 days to go

John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, is going after Barack Obama, his Democratic rival, even harder over his association with Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers. 

His campaign has put out a new advertisement linking Obama and Ayers, and McCain is now openly talking about it. 

The crowd at the McCain/Palin rally on Thursday in Pennsylvania was emotionally charged and angry at Obama. 

They jeered and made rude gestures while McCain brought up Ayers for the first time in a stump speech. 

Politico calls it a "multi-layered offensive against Obama" as "Republicans worked Thursday to fuel suspicions about Obama, who has referred to Ayers as only an acquaintance."

The audience seemed to love McCain's new harsher tone and begged him to ramp up the rhetoric. Politico goes on to say the angry crowd "generally demonstrated the sort of visceral anger and unease that reflects a party on the precipice of panic".

The Wall Street Journal reports that "The McCain campaign's decision to go on the offensive came after a high-level, all-day meeting last Friday in Phoenix." 

But, inexplicably, McCain refuses to put the Reverend Wright business in play. The WSJ talked to a senior McCain adviser who said: "The difference between Mr. Ayers and Wright isn't race, it's religion - it's not appropriate to attack someone's faith."

Questionable donations

Obama is buying 30 minutes of primetime TV on at least two of the major American networks on October 29, the anniversary of Black Tuesday. 

Obama is buying up some pricey
advertising time [GALLO/GETTY]
The last time a presidential candidate bought so much expensive national time was Ross Perot in 1992.  There are few details on what the really long advertisement will say or how much it will cost, but details are supposed to come out on Friday. 

The New York Times takes a look at some of the questionable campaign contributions accepted by the Obama campaign, and found nearly 3,000 donations from more than a dozen people with "apparently fictitious donor information".

Those donations totaled only a fraction of the $450 million Obama has raised. But the Times notes that the donations, "raise concerns about whether the Obama campaign is adequately vetting its unprecedented flood of donors".

Meanwhile a report by the Alaska State Legislature into Sarah Palin's involvement in the firing of Alaska's public safety commissioner is expected to be released on Friday.

The commissioner allegedly refused to fire Palin's former brother-in-law, Michael Wooten. The New York Times finds that Palin, her husband, and members of her administration contacted the commissioner and his aides three dozen times over 19 months. 

After interviewing the former commissioner and several aides, the Times found "her husband and her administration pressed the commissioner and his staff to get Trooper Wooten off the force, though without directly ordering it."

The legislature looked into whether or not she abused her power. Palin has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and says the investigation has been politicised. 

And the WP takes a look at how a public relations consultant helped bring Palin into the national spotlight and the steps she took towards becoming the vice-presidential candidate. 

The consultant scheduled a lot of media opportunities for Palin, especially on oil and gas exploration. 

"Some [Alaska] lawmakers complained about the governor's preoccupation with media coverage, blaming it in part for her absence at the Capitol."

All the attention from a far away place helped put her on McCain's radar.

Scandal brewing

And there is more scandal a-brewin'. The WSJ reports that Obama's newly named Muslim outreach coordinator Minha Husaini attended discussions with 30 Muslim and community leaders including members of the Council of American-Islamic Relations and the Muslim American Society. 

The US government says those groups have had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, which the government considers to be terrorist organisations. 

 A spokesperson for the Obama campaign told the WSJ that "this meeting was not organised by the campaign."

"Our outreach staff attends many meetings in the course of each day, and they accepted an invitation from community leaders to attend."

The campaign declined to make Husaini available for comment. The last Muslim outreach co-ordinator resigned over a similar issue. No word on whether or not Husaini will stick around.

Camille Elhassani, Washington, 26 days to go

The candidates are again stumping in the big battleground states (and will be for the next 26 days) talking about the economy. 

In focus

In-depth coverage of the US presidential election
McCain is touting his new plan to spend $300 billion buying up bad mortgages while Obama tries to tie McCain to Bush. 

Both are trying to connect with Americans hurting from this crisis. 

After McCain unveiled his new economic proposal in the debate, Obama quickly said he’d proposed the same thing, but now the campaign says he opposes the idea. 

An Obama spokesperson said the plan would have the government overpay for mortgages and benefit the financial institutions. 

Ugly rhetoric

The Los Angeles Times writes, "Egged on by a surly crowd, John McCain and Sarah Palin delivered a stark condemnation of Barack Obama's policies and character Wednesday, casting him as an unreliable choice for president." 

The rhetoric has become more aggresive
at McCain's rallies [GALLO/GETTY]
Over the last few days at McCain and Palin rallies, some members of the crowd have used disturbing taunts at Obama.  When McCain was speaking yesterday, someone in the audience shouted, "radical" and "liar" in reference to Obama.

Neither McCain nor Palin have asked the crowd to refrain from such language. 

However when for the second time in two days, an introductory speaker used Obama’s full name, emphasis on his middle name "Hussein," McCain issued a statement saying it doesn’t "condone this inappropriate rhetoric." 

There appears to be a struggle inside the McCain campaign – yesterday Politico reported that they were going to lay off his relationship with Bill Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground radical group in the 1960's, on the stump. 

But they're still running ads linking Ayers to Obama. 

And McCain, Palin, and Cindy McCain have all hit Obama hard with personal attacks in the last 24 hours. 

It's hard to play both nice and mean at the same time, but the McCain camp is doing it in a schizophrenic sort of way, while Obama is just waiting them out.

The New York Times reports that McCain is offering "lusty attacks on Senator Barack Obama and gave less attention, and offered very few specifics, to the growing economic woes of American voters." 

Shifting tide?

The New York Times takes a look at the number of congressional seats the Republicans are at risk for losing and that some Republicans are very worried that the White House is outside their grasp as well. 

One Republican consultant told the paper, "This financial crisis has provided momentum to Barack Obama and other Democrats, and their campaigns now have the wind at their backs."

Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic reports that the Obama campaign is dispatching two of its top operatives to Florida.

"Their physical presence serves as a force multiplier effect, letting volunteers and canvassers know that the campaign considers their work vital.  Other senior staff members will be dispatched to other battleground states soon." 

Ambinder goes on to say this is an offensive move not defensive. 

'The Bradley effect'

Throughout this campaign, analysts have mulled whether or not racism will play a part in people's votes. 

A new Gallup poll finds, "While 6% of voters say they are less likely to vote for Barack Obama because of his race, 9% say they are more likely to vote for him, making the impact of his race a neutral to slightly positive factor when all voters' self-reported attitudes are taken into account."

As already reported in US Election Beat, Obama’s transition team is hard at work preparing for the first few weeks of his administration, just in case he wins the White House. 

The Huffington Post reports that a source in the McCain campaign says he's being more cautious: "The Arizona Senator has instructed his team to not spend time on the transition effort, according to the source, both out of a desire to have complete focus on winning the election as well as a superstitious belief that the campaign shouldn't put the cart before the horse."

The nation’s politically powerful gun owner’s group, the National Rifle Association, endorsed John McCain this morning. 

According to AP, The NRA's Political Victory Fund has already spent more than $2.3 million opposing Obama, including a big ad in today’s USA Today.

Camille Elhassani, Washington, 27 days to go

Last night's debate was the second to end without a headline. 

Many believed Obama edged out
McCain in Tuesday's debate

Focus groups said Barack Obama won, but there were no "game changing" moments that many were looking for. 

John Dickerson writes in Slate that the otherwise stony-faced crowd fell for Obama when he was gladhanding with them after the debate, "adulation from the audience helps explain why he won the debate." 

Nobody made a major mistake or gaffe and both candidates gave an adequate performance.  But John McCain needed to do better than just holding his own during the debate. 

He's running out of time and chances to have a "game-changing" moment. 

If for that reason only, the winner was Obama last night, not because he was did so much better or was inspirational, but because McCain didn't make it over the huge hurdle in front of him. 

The format didn’t make it easy for the two to talk to each other, and they didn't. 

Mostly the candidates either talked to the audience or the moderator.  

Republican strategist Ed Rollins told CNN it looked like Senate debate talk (meaning wonkish droning).  McCain looked more comfortable talking to the crowd. 

And once again, Obama was slow to get started but got better as the debate wore on.

Most of the 90 minutes was spent talking about the economy stupid. 

The only new proposal came from McCain, who early in the debate said he would order the treasury secretary to buy up bad home loans and renegotiate with the owner. 

Not a fiscally conservative position, but a shout out to Americans who are hurting who want solutions. 

The Washington Post questioned the logic of the proposal, "McCain seemed to be proposing two opposing ideas at once: paring back on the budget, through cutting defence programs and earmarks, while at the same time adding an expensive program." 

Afterwards, Obama's camp was not to be outdone, saying he recommended the same thing two weeks ago. 

'Bomb Iran'

They also clashed on foreign policy. 

McCain once again tried to make Obama out to be the risky inexperienced candidate, but as the Washington Post says, "Obama accused McCain of getting his facts wrong and said it was McCain whose rhetoric was belligerent." 

In both debates, Obama has brought out McCain's "Bomb Iran" song from a year and a half ago as an example of what America doesn’t need in the next administration.

The Los Angeles Times notes that, "the two made little effort to hide their seemingly mutual contempt." 

McCain referred to Obama as "that one" during the debate.

It was derogatory and exactly what he shouldn't have done, as someone who is trying to not look like a mean old man.

But they mostly kept to the issues and stayed away from character attacks which have dominated the week’s news cycle. 

And as the Wall Street Journal pointed out, there was a "much tougher tone" than in the first debate.

"Ground has shifted to Sen. Obama's advantage, meaning he has less reason to take risks and a strong incentive to play it safe. Sen. McCain, by contrast, needs to take more chances, and has a motivation to try riskier plays.”

Fed frenzy

On the Fed Rate cut this morning, McCain issued a statement supporting it, and reiterating his call last night for the government to help homeowners.

The Washington Post reports that Obama is outspending McCain nearly three to one on TV time, and it's "almost certainly contributing to the momentum for the Illinois senator in key battleground states." 

That's the result of not taking public financing and raking in the donations, except for those donations that are suspect, some $3.3 million worth according to the Associated Press. 

Apparently the donors didn't list a home state or an incorrect one. 

It was ugly on the campaign trail, but according to McCain's top aides, that’s over.

Politico reports that a top adviser said McCain will lay off the Bill Ayers "domestic terrorist" story.

Politico says: "It's no mystery why McCain is easing back on, or withholding entirely, such character-based assaults: Even with the $700 billion rescue plan signed into law, the economic crisis appears to be worsening not stabilizing." 

But what about Sarah Palin?  She brought up Ayers last night on her press plane.

Camille Elhassani, Washington, 28 days to go

The two candidates who claimed to be above politics as usual are engaging in politics as usual, and there’s mud everywhere.

The Keating/Ayers charges from yesterday have been supplemented with negative ads from both sides.  Sarah Palin warned an effusive crowd in Florida yesterday that "it may get kinda rough." 

The campaigns are using words like "lie," "hypocritical," "erratic," and "out of touch." 

Sarah Palin has launched increasingly
aggressive attacks on Obama [AFP]
The Chicago Tribune is calling it an "increasingly poisonous atmosphere." 

Former McCain adviser Mark McKinnon told the New York Times, "the sun will rise. The sun will set. And presidential campaigns will go negative."

There's less than a month left in this campaign and John McCain is running out of chances to wrestle the momentum away from Barack Obama. 

The Washington Times reports, "Republican strategists say that his only hope now is to make his rival's judgment, inexperience, liberalism and tax increases the central issues in the campaign's remaining weeks."

Polls show most voters don't like character based attacks, but they're often effective. 

However this year looks different than other years. 

The financial crisis has sucked a lot of the energy out of the campaign and voters want a calming voice to tell them their home is safe, they'll be able to afford gas and their life savings is worth something. 

So character or solutions, and which candidate has a measure of either one?

Debating time

While the tone of this campaign has changed in the last few days, the onus in tonight's debate is again on John McCain.  His poll numbers are sliding and he belongs to the incumbent party. 

The challenge is can he look empathetic with voters in an issue debate.  But will he keep going with the character fight?  How will voters respond? 

McCain likes the town hall format, he engages well with John Q Public. 

The New York Times reports, "McCain's aides suggested the attacks that he and his running mate had unleashed were intended to set the table for their debate in Nashville, one of the few high-profile moments Mr. McCain has left to reach voters across the country and present a disqualifying version of Mr Obama." 

And if there’s any truth we can all agree on with John McCain, it's that he is a survivor. 

He resurrected a dead campaign last year, came back to fight again after losing in 2000, etc.  So he is capable of a 'home run' tonight in Nashville. 

Camille Elhassani, Washington, 29 days to go

Both candidates are trying to paint the other one as too risky to elect to the nation's highest office. 

And they're digging up the past to do it. 

John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, is bringing up domestic terrorism, and Barack Obama, his Democratic rival, is fighting back with an old financial scandal. 

It's part of McCain's effort to change the subject of the campaign to try to stop Obama's recent momentum. 

McCain is struggling to regain
momentum [EPA]
Two well known associations are suddenly breaking news to the candidates – Obama's camp has started a new website and web ad called "Keating economics" in reference to McCain's involvement in the Keating 5 Savings and Loan scandal back in the 1980s. 

McCain was criticised by the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991 for "poor judgment" for attending meetings with Lincoln S&L boss Charles Keating, who had given money to McCain's senate campaign and was under investigation for questionable lending practices. 

Obama's people are trying to find links to an economic scandal 20 years ago with the financial crisis of today.

And McCain put Sarah Palin, his vice-presidential running mate, on the attack over the weekend. 

She alleged that Obama has ties to Bill Ayers, founder of the Weather Underground group in the 1960s which planned a series of bombings. 

Both live in Chicago and served on a charity board together. 

Palin said on the stump that Obama is "palling around with terrorists who would target their own country". 

This morning Obama told a radio programme that McCain is engaging in "guilt by association" and are trying to "change the topic because they don't want to talk about the economy".      

Karl Rove gives advice to McCain in Newsweek about what he should do in the next two debates, saying that "people have persistent doubts about whether Obama is qualified."

"McCain-Palin must deepen those doubts by pounding away on questions about Obama's character, judgment and values. McCain-Palin must offer a narrative about what they will do to help America see better days, especially on kitchen table concerns."

All over the map

The past week has seen changes in the electoral map. 

North Carolina, Virginia, and Indiana are states that Bush won easily in 2004 which are up for grabs now. 

Obama has pulled ahead in Florida and Michigan and McCain is on the defensive now to hold all the Bush states. 

Also, these are the final days to register to vote in many states, including the battleground states of Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia and Colorado. 

And according to the Washington Post, the number of Democrats registered in extreme battleground Florida is two to one, while North Carolina is six to one Democratic. 

The Los Angeles Times reports: "Registration numbers may help guide campaign strategy in the sprint to election day."

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