MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. One of the most controversial devices in political campaigns is making news. Republican John McCain is facing criticism for robocalls - automated phone calls aimed at spreading negative messages about Democrat Barack Obama. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: When you get mail from a political candidate, you probably throw it away. And when you get a robocall, you're probably hanging up in the first five to ten seconds. But the call costs a small fraction of the mail piece. So take the robocall that's most in the news these days - a McCain message accusing Obama of being a radical dupe for terrorists. You might experience it something like this.
Unidentified Man: Hello. I'm calling for John McCain and the RNC, because you need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers.
OVERBY: This thing has caused an uproar - partly for its method and partly for the message. McCain and the Republican National Committee also have a robocall about Obama and abortion. Those who object include Republican senators fighting for re-election. In Minnesota, Norm Coleman calls for no more negative advertising. On WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, he was asked about McCain's robocalls.
Senator NORM COLEMAN (Republican, Minnesota): I think it plays into what I said about negative ads to everyone. I think those ads, those things, those calls should stop.
OVERBY: And in Maine, Senator Susan Collins was even more blunt. She said quote, these kind of tactics have no place in Maine politics. Collins is co-chair of McCain's campaign in the state. McCain was the victim of robocalls himself back in the 2000 primaries. They made personal attacks on him and his family, and he denounced them. But Sunday on Fox News, he said he's not stopping his phone campaign against Obama.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican Presidential Nominee): Of course not. These are legitimate and truthful.
OVERBY: And McCain is not the only one with an automated speed dial. Here's the Missouri Democratic Party promoting Obama.
REBECCA (Obama Promoter): Hi! This is Rebecca. I'm a mom from Clay County and I'm calling to make sure you received something in the mail recently describing John McCain's plans to give tax cuts for companies that ship jobs overseas.
OVERBY: Shaun Dakin is the founder of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry. The organization wants to let people block calls from politicians.
Mr. SHAUN DAKIN (Founder, National Political Do Not Contact Registry): If you live in a battleground state, you could be getting 10 to 15 calls a day at this point in the election cycle. If you're a night-shift worker - I mean, we have calls, we have e-mails from people who are night-shift workers who are simply not able to get the sleep that they need in order to do their job.
OVERBY: Studies show that robocalls usually aren't that effective. Dakin says it's their economics that keep them going.
Mr. DAKIN: Essentially, all you need to do is buy a computer server with the right software on it, and you have a robocall system. So if they're relatively low quality done over the Internet - code voice over IP - those can be as low as a quarter of a cent a call.
OVERBY: David Magleby is a political scientist at Brigham Young University who studies political communication strategies. He has two possible interpretations of McCain's big push with robocalls. It could be that McCain's campaign is using them instead of far more costly TV ads.
Mr. DAVID MAGLEBY (Political Scientist, Brigham Young University): Or is it also an element of that they may not have the volunteer base that the Bush campaign had in 2000 or 2004, and so they're going to robocalls rather than having volunteers call.
OVERBY: Either way, McCain's phone operations are so intense, they may set a new standard for robocall saturation and, perhaps, for their impact. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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