COLUMBUS, Ohio — John McCain on Friday moved to calm rising anger among his supporters at rival Barack Obama, calling him a decent man and at one point taking the microphone away from a woman who'd called Obama an Arab.
Their anger apparently still at flash point, McCain's supporters then booed him for his conciliatory words about Obama.
The abrupt move from McCain at a town hall meeting in Minnesota came after days of rising tensions as McCain and his campaign attacked Obama as a friend of a 1960s radical they called a terrorist.
Increasingly angry, supporters of McCain and running mate Sarah Palin have responded at rallies with loud cries of "terrorist" and "traitor."
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At one such rally earlier this week in New Mexico, McCain visibly winced when his mention of Obama's name was greeted by the shout of "terrorist," but the candidate said nothing about it and went on with his speech.
Supporters at the Minnesota town hall meeting pressed McCain to get even tougher on Obama.
But when one man said he was scared to raise his unborn child in a country that might be led by a President Obama, McCain disagreed.
"I have to tell you, he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States," McCain said to boos and groans from his supporters.
"If you want a fight, we will fight," McCain said. "But we will be respectful. I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments. . . .I don't mean that has to reduce your ferocity, I just mean to say you have to be respectful."
Later, another supporter told McCain, "I don't trust Obama...He's an Arab."
McCain stood shaking his head as she spoke, then quickly took the microphone from her.
"No, ma'am," he said. "He's a decent, family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with."
Campaigning in Ohio hours before, Obama defended his character against the mounting attacks, daring McCain to run as negatively as he wants in the final weeks of the race while predicting that, in light of the financial crisis, "it will not work."
Both candidates responded to the stock market meltdown with new policy proposals. McCain, in Wisconsin, suggested waiving a tax rule requiring that investors begin selling off their IRAs and 401(k)s when they turn 70-and-a-half. Obama, in Ohio, pitched temporarily lifting lending fees and extending fixed-rate loans to small businesses through a Small Business Administration disaster relief fund.
But the dramatic personal nature of the campaign overshadowed those developments.
"We know what's coming, we know what they're going to do," Obama told supporters in Chillicothe and later in Columbus.
McCain's campaign had announced a national TV ad that asserts Obama worked with a "terrorist" when it was politically convenient and then lied about their relationship.
The man, Bill Ayers, is a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who in 1995 hosted a candidate event for Obama and was involved with two mainstream charitable groups in which Obama also had been active. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has praised Ayers as a leading citizen who helped shape the city's innovative schools' program.
In the late 1960s and early '70s, when Obama was a child, Ayers belonged to the radical antiwar group, Weather Underground, which advocated violence and placed bombs at the Pentagon and the Capitol.
McCain's accusation is that Obama understated what he knew about Ayers' past or his beliefs when it suited him. There's no evidence that the two men are close or that Ayers has any connection to Obama's presidential campaign.
At a rally on Thursday, McCain himself used the word "terrorist" to describe Ayers, and many McCain supporters were whipped into a lather as they voiced fear and indignation at Obama's ascent. Many participants chanted "liar, liar" when Obama's name was mentioned.
However, at a Friday morning rally in La Crosse, Wis., McCain seemed to dial back the tone. He didn't mention Ayers, and perhaps his most negative words were to paint Obama as "a Chicago politician."
But McCain's campaign on Friday also organized for the second time this week a conference call featuring John Murtagh, whose family home was firebombed in 1970 because his father, as a New York supreme court justice, had presided over a Black Panthers trial.
Murtagh's father was also threatened in an open 1970 letter signed by Ayers' wife, Bernardine Dohrn — also a former radical from the Vietnam era, now a law professor at Northwestern University. Murtagh said he remains convinced that the couple wanted to kill or hurt his family. He said he doesn't hold Obama responsible, but he thinks that Obama's past comfort level with Ayers shows a "complete lack of judgment."
Earlier in the week, McCain, in New Mexico, insinuated that Obama was hiding aspects of his past, asking, "Who is the real Barack Obama?" McCain did not reference race or religion, but the open-ended question may have stirred voters who believe that Obama, who's Christian, is Muslim because his Kenyan father's family was Muslim.
"Nothing's easier than riling up a crowd by stoking anger and division, but that's not what we need now in the United States," Obama said in Chillicothe and almost verbatim later in Columbus. "The American people aren't looking for someone who can divide this country, they're looking for somebody who will lead this country. Now more than ever it is time to put country ahead of politics."
"They can try to turn the page on the economy, they can try to deny the record of the last eight years," Obama said. "They can run misleading ads, they can pursue the politics of anything goes. It will not work. Not this time."
McCain spokesman Brian Rogers responded that, "Barack Obama just doesn't understand regular people and the issues they care about" and said McCain's character questions were "legitimate" and "vital."
While Obama dared McCain on Friday to keep up his attacks, the Democratic nominee and his supporters took pains Friday to defend Obama's honor.
Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who introduced Obama in Chillicothe, told the audience, "Barack Obama is a strong, Christian family man. Now why did I share those two things with you this morning? Because the McCain-Palin campaign and unfortunately some of their followers would want you to be afraid of Barack Obama. They want you to believe that he is untested and unknown. I know Barack Obama. I think I know what's in his heart. He is bright, he is capable, he is mature, he is steady. We can trust Barack Obama with Chillicothe, with southern Ohio, with Ohio, with America."
Meanwhile, in Ohio and other battleground states, the Obama campaign was airing an ad that shows old photos of the biracial Democratic nominee with his white mother and white grandparents. Obama often closes his speeches by telling the audience that together they can change the world. In Columbus, he closed, "God bless the United States of America."
(Talev reported from Ohio. Douglas reported from Wisconsin. Steven Thomma and David Lightman in Washington contributed to this article.)
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