MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The presidential campaign is getting more aggressive. Today, John McCain attacked Barack Obama, saying the Democrat is lying about McCain's record. The Obama campaign is calling McCain erratic, and Sarah Palin is saying Obama pals around with terrorists. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: Today, in Clearwater, Florida, Sarah Palin spoke for the second time in as many days about Barack Obama's relationship with William Ayers, a former leader of the Weather Underground who planted bombs in the 1960s and says he has no regrets.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska; Republican Vice Presidential Candidate): Barack Obama says that Ayers was just someone in the neighborhood, but that's less than truthful. His own top advisers said that they were, quote, "certainly friendly". In fact, Obama held one of his first meetings of his political career in Bill Ayers' living room.

LIASSON: While it's true Obama has minimized his relationship with Ayers - in fact, the two served on a nonprofit board together - it's also true the McCain campaign exaggerates the Obama-Ayers connection. Obama is also using guilt by association attacks. He's run ads tying McCain to Rush Limbaugh, corporate lobbyists, and in a new Obama Web video, to the villain in the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s, Charles Keating.

(Soundbite of Obama campaign ad)

Dr. WILLIAM BLACK (Former Federal Banking Regulator): He was someone that McCain took much of his policy advice from on how you should regulate, or in this case, not regulate savings and loans.

LIASSON: And there are more attacks. Today, McCain started running this ad.

(Soundbite of McCain campaign ad)

Unidentified Announcer #1: Who is Barack Obama? He says our troops in Afghanistan are...

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Nominee): Just air raiding villages and killing civilians…

Unidentified Announcer #1: How dishonorable.

LIASSON: Obama has attacked McCain for not knowing how to use a computer and for shooting craps with lobbyists. This ad seems to question McCain's mental stability.

(Soundbite of Obama campaign ad)

Unidentified Announcer #2: Our financial system in turmoil, and John McCain, erratic in crisis, out of touch on the economy.

LIASSON: The new tone of the campaign is certainly not unexpected or unprecedented. But what is unusual is that it was announced in advance by McCain aide Greg Strimple in a conference call on Saturday. With the overwhelming focus of voters on the economy and McCain's numbers dropping, Strimble predicted a very aggressive last 30 days.

Mr. GREG STRIMPLE (McCain Campaign Adviser): We're looking at turning the page on this financial crisis and getting back to discussing Mr. Obama's liberal, aggressively liberal, record and how he will be too risky for Americans.

LIASSON: It's a truism of politics that voters always say they hate negative attacks, but politicians keep on using them because they work. But this year could be different. Voters may be angry enough at Washington to reject anything that doesn't address their number one concern, the economy.

Mr. WHIT AYERS (Republican Pollster): There's plenty of negativity to go around.

LIASSON: That's Whit Ayers, a Republican pollster and no relation with Bill Ayers. He says right now the burden in the race is on McCain because Obama has a lead that is statistically significant, that is it's outside the margin of error nationally and in many key battleground states.

Mr. AYERS: Obama's ahead, and the candidate in second place tends to run relatively more negative ads.

LIASSON: According to the advertising project at the University of Wisconsin, in mid-September Obama was running a higher percentage of negative ads. As of today, that has changed. And what should voters expect for the next couple of weeks? More of the same, says Ayers, because in his view, Charles Keating and Bill Ayers are both fair game.

Mr. AYERS: I think our associations are a window into our values. If John McCain likes to hang around Ku Klux Klansmen, and if his church had given a lifetime achievement award to the racist David Duke, we would all think those were perfectly legitimate areas of inquiry.

LIASSON: So does Ayers think it's also legitimate to attack Obama's long association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright?

Mr. AYERS: Yep, and I think they should.

LIASSON: McCain himself seems to have ruled out attacks using Obama's former pastor. Independent groups supporting him may have no such hesitation. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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