John McCain raised questions for the first time Thursday about Barack Obama's association with a 1960s-era radical, elevating an attack that had been previously leveled only by Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
His comments came as the presidential campaign moved along two separate tracks - character and the economy - across two battleground states.
The McCain campaign unleashed a multi-layered offensive against Obama for his connection to William Ayers, a Chicago professor and a former member of the Weather Underground involved in domestic bombings. From a new TV ad from the Republican National Committee to a Palin interview on conservative talk radio to McCain's willingness to address Ayers for the first time, Republicans worked Thursday to fuel suspicions about Obama, who has referred to Ayers as only an acquaintance.
"Sen. Clinton said in the primary that we should find out about this association," McCain said of Obama and Ayers during a town hall in Waukesha, Wisc. "Look, we don't care about an old washed-up terrorist and his wife who still, at least on Sept. 11, 2001, said he still wanted to bomb more.
"That's not the point," McCain continued. "The point is Sen. Obama said he was just a guy in the neighborhood. We know that's just not true. We need to know the full extent of the relationship because of whether Sen. Obama is telling the truth to the American people or not. That's the question."
McCain was responding to a question at a town hall where the mood shifted quickly from a sedate discussion about the economy to an heated, boisterous scene in which audience members pleaded with the Republican nominee to get tougher on Obama.
"It's absolutely vital that you take it to Obama, that you hit him where it hurts," James Harris, a conservative radio talk show host, told McCain, adding "we have all of these shady characters that have surrounded him."
Obama, meanwhile, opened a two-day bus tour through Ohio by criticizing McCain's mortgage buyback plan as a reward to bad lenders that would stick taxpayers with a $300 billion tab. Obama campaign aides had criticized the plan, which McCain initially raised at Tuesday's debate, but Thursday marked the first time the Democrat personally weighed in on the issue.
"Sen. McCain actually wants the government to pay the full face value of mortgages on the books, even though they're not worth that much anymore," Obama said at a rally here. "It's a plan that would guarantee that American taxpayers lose by handing over $300 billion to underwrite the kind of greed and irresponsibility on Wall Street that got us into this mess."
Obama is spending four out of the next five days in Ohio, as he travels through the state's southwestern and central regions before returning Sunday to the Toledo area to prepare for the final presidential debate.
The race in Ohio remains unpredictable. McCain held a steady lead over Obama in the Real Clear Politics polling average through mid-September, but has seen his support erode since then. Obama overtook McCain in the polls 10 days ago, as Congress wrangled over the $700 billion bill aiding the financial industry.
Obama told 8,500 voters in Dayton that he supports efforts to buy up troubled mortgages, but "we need to do it in a responsible way."
Pressing his own character attack against McCain, Obama said the Republican nominee had shifted positions on aiding homeowners over the months, and his embrace now of a mortgage rescue plan raises questions of whether McCain can be trusted.
"Well, I don't think we can afford that kind of erratic and uncertain leadership in these uncertain times," Obama said. "We need steady leadership in the White House."
McCain's plan would order the Treasury to purchase bad mortgages at face value even though sliding home prices mean many homes are worth far less than what the government would pay for original mortgages.
The plan would involve retiring the original mortgage and issuing the homeowner a new, 30-year fixed-rate loan at interest rates just above 5 percent from the Federal Housing Administration. The shortfall between the new mortgage and the cost of the older, more expensive one would come from taxpayers.
"Barack Obama has voted in favor of higher taxes 94 times and is promising over $900 billion in new government spending, but apparently he won't spend a dime to help hardworking Americans stay in their homes," the McCain campaign said in a written response to Obama. "In addition to explaining his friendship with unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers, Barack Obama should tell voters why he supports the $700 billion legislative rescue plan but now opposes using that money to help homeowners get the relief they need and strengthen our economy."
The independent arm of the RNC will begin airing a new ad Friday in Wisconsin and Indiana tying Obama to Ayers and asking the question: "Who is Barack Obama?" The McCain campaign released a web ad Thursday that suggests Obama knew Ayers better than the Democratic nominee has been willing to say.
And Palin, in an interview with talk radio host Laura Ingraham, said Obama was not being honest.
"Barack Obama hasn't told the American people the total truth about that, about his association with Ayers," Palin said. "Doggone it, he fails to tell the American people with candor and with truthfulness what his associations are and we have to know."
Ayers, who is active in education issues and was named Chicago's Citizen of the Year in 1997, hosted a house party for Obama when he was seeking an Illinois state senate seat in 1995. The two men have worked together on a schools project, sat on the board of a charitable foundation and live in the same neighborhood, but Obama denies any close relationship.
In the general election, McCain has refrained from discussing Ayers, leaving Palin and others to level the attack on behalf of the Republican ticket. The issue came up Thursday when a man at the Wisconsin town hall posed a question.
Eliciting applause, the man said he and others were "all wondering why Obama is where he's at. How he got here."
"Everybody in this room is stunned we're in this position," the man said. "We're all a product of our association. Is there not a way to get around this media and line up the people that he has hung with?"
That was when McCain raised Ayers, but not by name, which was followed by some in the crowd yelling "terrorist!" and "liar!"
"I am begging you, sir," another man said later, "begging you to take it to him."
McCain answered the man by saying, "Can I just say very quickly, yes, I'll do that."
The Obama campaign issued a statement later in the afternoon that McCain "would rather launch angry, personal attacks than talk about the economy or defend his risky bailout scheme" for homeowners and mortgage lenders.