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Originally published Sunday, October 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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McCain "robo calls" draw bipartisan fire

Senators in opposing political parties have asked Republican presidential candidate John McCain to stop automated telephone attacks on Democratic...

Senators in opposing political parties have asked Republican presidential candidate John McCain to stop automated telephone attacks on Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, made separate appeals to McCain on Friday. Collins faces a tough race for re-election and serves as a co-chairwoman of his Maine campaign.

"These kind of tactics have no place in Maine politics," Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley said. "Sen. Collins urges the McCain campaign to stop these calls immediately."

Voters in at least 10 closely contested states are receiving hundreds of thousands of the automated, or "robo," calls — uniformly negative and sometimes misleading.

McCain has belittled such calls in the past: In the 2000 primaries, he was a target of misleading calls that included innuendo about his family, and blamed them in part for his loss to George W. Bush. In January, McCain described those calls as "scurrilous stuff."

On Friday, a Democratic officeholder in Minnesota said he received such an anti-Obama call and tracked it to a company owned by a prominent Republican consultant, Jeff Larson. According to news reports, Larson and his previous firm in 2000 helped develop the phone calls that targeted and were denounced by McCain.

A McCain campaign spokesman could not say whether it had contracted with Larson's current company, FLS Connect.

Many of the calls link Obama to 1960s radical Bill Ayers, now a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago. The McCain campaign says the calls are warranted because Obama's connection to Ayers — the two met many years after Ayers' anti-Vietnam War activities had ended — raise questions about the Democrat's judgment and record.

The Minnesota Democrat, Christopher Shoff, a commissioner in Freeborn County, said the robo call made to his home described Obama as putting "Hollywood above America" because he attended a fundraiser in Beverly Hills hours after the federal government seized control of the ailing insurance giant American International Group. The call was reported first by the Huffington Post.

"It's a disgusting form of negative campaigning — calling people randomly off a computerized list, during dinner time, and reciting a message that is misleading, as I knew it to be," Shoff said. "Republicans should be talking about serious issues."

Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, said the "Hollywood" robo call was based in fact. "I would argue that much of these calls are based on hardened facts that American voters should consider," Bounds said.

Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, said McCain's use of robo calls shows "just how much Sen. McCain has changed since then — adopting not only President Bush's policies but his tactics."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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