The McCain campaign has launched negative robocalls in a number of swing states. (Reuters)
Voters in at least 10 swing states are receiving hundreds of thousands of automated telephone calls - uniformly negative and sometimes misleading - that the Republican Party and the McCain campaign are financing this week as they struggle to keep more states from drifting into the Democratic column.
Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee for president, has denounced such phone calls in the past: In the 2000 primaries, Mr. McCain was a target of misleading calls that included innuendo about his family, and he blamed them in part for his loss to George W. Bush. This January, too, in South Carolina, Mr. McCain described the calls against him as "scurrilous stuff," and his campaign set up a "truth squad" to debunk them.
On Friday, a Democratic official in Minnesota said he had received one of these so-called robocalls and had tracked it to a company owned by a prominent Republican consultant, Jeff Larson. According to published news reports, Mr. Larson and his previous firm helped develop the phone calls in 2000 that took aim at Mr. McCain.
A spokesman for the McCain campaign could not say Friday night whether it had contracted with Mr. Larson's current company, FLS Connect. Phone messages left for Mr. Larson were not answered Friday, nor were messages left at a subcontractor, King TeleServices, which is making the actual calls to voters in Minnesota.
The Minnesota Democrat, Christopher Shoff, a commissioner in Freeborn County, said the automated call described Mr. Obama as putting "Hollywood above America" because he attended a fund-raiser in Beverly Hills hours after the federal government seized control of the insurance giant American International Group. The call was first reported by The Huffington Post.
"It is a disgusting form of negative campaigning," Mr. Shoff said in an interview, "calling people randomly off a computerized list, during dinner time, and reciting a message that is misleading, as I knew it to be. Republicans should be talking about serious issues."
Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, said the "Hollywood" robocall was based in fact. "I would argue that much of these calls are based on hardened facts that American voters should consider," Mr. Bounds said.
Another McCain spokesman, Brian Rogers, said the automated calls placed this year were different from those used against Mr. McCain in 2000 because they were "100 percent true." Mr. Rogers added that it was "crazy" to compare these calls to the calls in 2000, which sought to hurt Mr. McCain by describing his "interracial child" - a reference to the McCains' adopted daughter from Bangladesh.
On Friday, Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, urged Mr. McCain to stop placing automated calls in her state, The Associated Press reported.
Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said Mr. McCain's use of automated calls in this campaign showed "just how much Senator McCain has changed since then - adopting not only President Bush's policies but his tactics." In response to the calls, the Obama campaign on Friday added a link on its Web site to FightTheSmears.com, asking supporters to report robocalls.
Mr. LaBolt said the Obama campaign was currently making robocalls, but he added: "The focus of all of our communications is on the direction Senator Obama will take the country and on policy differences between the candidates on issues like health care." Republican National Committee officials said they were not aware of any Obama robocalls.
Such calls are a relatively cheap way to reach large numbers of voters in a short time. A review shows that the current calls on Mr. McCain's behalf are uniformly negative and at times misleading.
The phone campaign hammers familiar themes that have been playing out for months in the campaign, focusing on Mr. Obama's past associations and trying to portray him as a friend of radicals and liberal Hollywood celebrities.
In one widely reported call, Mr. McCain raises Mr. Obama's links to William Ayers, a founder of the 1960s-era radical Weather Underground. "You need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers," a recorded voice says.
Mr. Obama, 47, and Mr. Ayers, now a 63-year-old education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, served together on two of that city's philanthropic boards as well as on the board of an education project, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. The two men have been described as friendly, but are not known to be close.
In an Oct. 10 letter to The New York Times, William C. Ibershof, the lead federal prosecutor of the Weathermen in the 1970s, expressed outrage that Mr. Obama was being tarred with the association, adding that he was pleased to learn that Mr. Ayers had "become a responsible citizen."
The "Hollywood" robocall, meanwhile, asserts that "on the very day our elected leaders gathered in Washington to deal with the financial crisis, Barack Obama spent just 20 minutes with economic advisers, but hours at a celebrity Hollywood fund-raiser."
The information is based on a newspaper report from Sept. 16, when the government took control of the American International Group in an $85 billion bailout. Mr. Obama attended a cocktail reception that night in Beverly Hills that featured celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Leonardo DiCaprio, after a 20-minute briefing by economic advisers.
But Mr. LaBolt said Mr. Obama's schedule that day also showed that he was briefed by staff members twice more and spoke with Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke.
Mr. McCain was not in Washington, either, on the day Mr. Obama was in Beverly Hills; he was campaigning in Ohio. The Obama campaign noted that Mr. McCain had also raised money from Hollywood.
Voters in North Carolina have received calls accusing Mr. Obama of opposing legislation aimed at protecting aborted fetuses that show signs of life, a position the call states is "at odds even with John Kerry and Hillary Clinton."
"Please vote," the call continues, "vote for candidates that share our values."
The 2003 measure in Illinois that Mr. Obama opposed was virtually identical to federal legislation that Mr. Bush signed into law in 2002 after it was overwhelmingly passed by Congress. But Mr. Obama and other opponents of the Illinois bill have said that the state already had a law protecting aborted fetuses born alive. The Illinois State Medical Society, which also opposed the legislation, said the bill would increase civil liability for doctors and interfere with their patient relationships.
Michael Cooper and Michael Moss contributed reporting.