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Palin the pitbull brands Obama 'pal of terrorists'

Sarah Palin emerged as her running-mate John McCain's chief attack dog at the weekend with an incendiary attack on Barack Obama as an unpatriotic man who would "pal around with terrorists".

Sarah Palin was forced to defend herself against accusations of playing the race card yesterday after she launched a provocative attack on Barack Obama, branding him an unpatriotic man who would "pal around with terrorists".

The Alaskan governor said she had no regrets about declaring that her high heels were on "and the gloves are off" as she twice sought to link her Democratic opponent to Bill Ayers, a prominent and highly-controversial far-left activist in the 1960s.

Her rally speeches bore all the now-familiar hallmarks of her vice-presidential campaign: short on substance, long on jokes, and widely described by commentators as "folksy". But their newly-aggressive nature and tone, which went further than any previous criticism by John McCain of his opponent, reflected a clear effort to move the discussion away from economic issues which have allowed Mr Obama to take a narrow lead in the polls in crucial swing states.

In remarks seen to have a racial edge, she said of Mr Obama: "This is not a man who sees America as you and I see America. We see America as a force for good in this world. We see America as a force for exceptionalism ... Our opponents see America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who would bomb their own country."

The "friend of a terrorist" allegation appeared to have scant basis in fact, but succeeded in grabbing the news agenda, suggesting the McCain camp will now make attacks on his opponent's character and personality a key feature of the campaign in the final month of the race for the White House.

With John McCain spending the weekend preparing for tomorrow night's second debate with Senator Obama, Mrs Palin was left to lead the campaign on a fundraising tour of the safely Democratic state of California.

She launched her most pointed criticism of Mr Obama's alleged friendship with Ayers to a crowd of 8,000 in Carson, a mostly-white working-class area of south Los Angeles.

The attack began with a humourous reference to Mrs Palin's unfortunate recent television interview with the newscaster Katie Couric in which she appeared unable to the newspapers or magazines, if any, she regularly reads. "There's been a lot of interest in what I read lately," she said. "I was reading today a copy of The New York Times. And I was really interested to read in there about Barack Obama's friends from Chicago.

"Turns out one of his earliest supporters is a man who, according to The New York Times, was a domestic terrorist, that, quote, 'launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and the United States Capitol'." The comments referred to an investigation conducted by the newspaper into whether Mr Obama has enjoyed a significant relationship with Ayers, whose defunct terrorist organisation, Weatherman, had links to the black power movement.

However The New York Times' article to which she referred in fact concluded that Mr Obama and Ayers had never been close, despite both living in Chicago and occasionally moving in similar circles.

Yesterday, Mrs Palin defended her attack as legitimate. "The comments are about an association that has been known but hasn't been talked about," she said. "It's important to talk about how Barack Obama kicked off his political career in the guy's living room."

Although to some observers, Mr McCain's decision to allow his running-mate to raise the debate about Ayres marks a desperate last throw of the dice, to others it is a canny piece of political manoeuvring that will speak to undecided swing voters in the traditionally-Republican states where the Democrats now boast a narrow lead.

Either way, Mrs Palin is ideally suited for the role of attack dog, since the Democrats are reluctant to return fire against her for fear of being accused of acting in a condescending manner towards the most prominent female figure in American politics.

The Democratic campaign also descended to personal criticism yesterday, launching a new advert that was interpreted as a veiled criticism of John McCain's age.

The commercial, which will play nationally on cable television stations, accused the 72-year-old Senator of being "out of touch" and "erratic" during the recent economic crisis.

Formerly Republican states shifting Obama's way include:

*Florida: Won by George Bush over Kerry by 52 per cent to 47 per cent in 2004. Obama now leads McCain 51-47.

*Missouri: Taken by Bush 53-46 last time, the state has been a bellwether in every election for 40 years. Obama leads there 49-48.

*Nevada: Obama now leads the traditionally Republican Silver State by four points. In 2004, Bush won 51-48.

*Virginia: The large African-American population in Washington, has seen Obama take a 53-44 lead. Last time Bush held the state by nine points.

Bill Ayers: Focus of Palin's attack

*During the Cold War Bill Ayers was seen as one of the most dangerous men in America. A far-left activist who grew up in Chicago, Ayers was radicalised as a student at the University of Illinois. He rose to prominence as founder of the Weatherman organisation, which led demonstrations that often ended in street-fighting and set off small bombs in Washington and New York. Now 63, he remains prominent in left wingcircles, and teaches at the University of Chicago.

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