Palin criticizes Obama’s ties to Wright, Ayers

CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) – Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin expanded her attack on Democrat Barack Obama’s character Monday to include his relationship with an incendiary former pastor as well as his ties to 1960s-era radical Bill Ayers.

In the process, Palin toned down her description of the Obama-Ayers relationship after her weekend remarks were criticized as exaggerated, but at the same time she embarked on a discussion of Obama’s relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., which Republican presidential candidate John McCain had signaled he did not want to be a part of his campaign.

Meantime, a new poll showed that Palin’s image has changed little with the public since last week’s vice presidential debate, but views of her Democratic rival, Joe Biden, have improved.

In an interview with conservative New York Times columnist William Kristol published Monday, the Alaska governor said there should be more discussion about Wright, Obama’s pastor of 20 years at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. The Democratic candidate denounced Wright and severed ties with the church last spring after videotapes surfaced showing Wright making anti-American and anti-Semitic comments from the pulpit.

Wright had appeared to be off limits for the McCain campaign ever since McCain himself condemned the North Carolina Republican Party in April for an ad that called Obama “too extreme” because Wright was his pastor. He asked the party to take down the ad and said, “I’m making it very clear, as I have a couple of times in the past, that there’s no place for that kind of campaigning, and the American people don’t want it.”

When Kristol pressed Palin about Wright, she replied: “I don’t know why that association isn’t discussed more, because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country.”

She continued: “To me, that does say something about character. But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up.”

At a morning rally in Florida, Palin kept up her criticism of Obama’s ties to Ayers, a founder of the violent Weather Underground group blamed for several bombings during the Vietnam War era, when Obama was a child.

The Illinois senator has denounced Ayers’ radical views and activities.

“This is someone who sees America as ‘imperfect enough’ to work with a former domestic terrorist who targeted his own country,” Palin said of Obama. That was a tamer description than Palin used at rallies in California and Colorado over the weekend.

In her earlier attacks, Palin had said that Obama “pals around with terrorists.” News reports pointed out that Obama was 8 at the time of Weather Underground bombings and that the two men do not know each other well although they live in the same Chicago neighborhood, have served on a charity board together and Ayers hosted a meet-the-candidate event when Obama first ran for state office in the mid-1990s.

In an interview Monday with WFLA-TV, Palin said she was following the Times’ lead when she raised the subject of Ayers. The newspaper had examined the Ayers-Obama relationship in an article published last Saturday.

“That’s something that I think Americans would want to discuss,” she said in the interview, posted on Tampa Bay Online. “But The New York Times brought that up and in response to that, speaking with Americans about it because it is important for Americans to understand in this election the choices that they have in regards to judgement, and the association with Bill Ayers should make Americans question some of that.”

Meanwhile, a poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center over the weekend found that just over half of registered voters view Palin favorably and about four in 10 think she’s qualified to be president, essentially unchanged from a week earlier, before her debate with Biden. Biden’s positive image improved slightly to 63 percent, and those saying he’s qualified to be president grew to 77 percent, the same poll showed.

Reporters weren’t permitted to talk to Palin’s audience in a Clearwater park, the St. Petersburg Times reported.

When reporters tried to leave the designated press area and head to where the crowd was seated, an escort would confront him or her and turn the person around, Times staff writer Eileen Schulte wrote on the paper’s Web site. One escort, who would not give her name, told a reporter the press couldn’t mingle because negative things had been written in the past, Schulte reported.

Later, Obama adviser David Axelrod told CNN the Illinois senator “didn’t know the history” of Ayers’ Weather Underground activities when Ayers hosted the 1995 gathering. Speaking in Estero, Fla., Palin responded, “Today they’re saying for the first time that Barack Obama didn’t know back then about Ayers’ radical background.”