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John McCain, speaking to supporters, tries to defuse an anti-Barack Obama vibe

October 10, 2008 |  7:04 pm

Harsh words, false allegations and downright bile increasingly marked a series of John McCain/Sarah Palin rallies in recent days.

John McCain listens to a woman at a rally in Minnesota incorrectly term Barack Obama an Arab; the Republican told her that was falseTonight, in Lakeville, Minn., McCain sought to put a stop to it.

In doing so, he found himself in the unusual position of defending the decency of the man he is running against for president and disabusing supporters of some of their notions about Barack Obama.

The Times' Peter Nicholas was at the town hall event and reports that shortly after it started, an audience member urged McCain to engage in a "real fight" with Obama as the campaign winds to its conclusion.

Such remarks had been typical at gatherings Wednesday and Thursday in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, as McCain campaigned in tandem with Palin. The pair responded by pledging to do so and making their case against Obama -- while ignoring occasional audience shouts of "traitor," "terrorist" and, in one case, "off with his head" in reference to the Democrat.

But in Minnesota, where McCain appeared solo, he took a different tack. “If you want a fight, we will fight,” he said. “But we will be respectful. I admire Sen. Obama and his accomplishments.”

That comment prompted some boos, which spurred McCain to emphasize his point, “I want everyone to be respectful," he said. "And let’s make sure we are, because that’s the way politics is done in America.”

The give-and-take with his audience over Obama had just begun, though.

A few minutes later, a man who said his wife was pregnant said he was "scared" as he contemplated an Obama presidency during the first years of his child's life.

McCain, after letting the fellow finish his thoughts, took the microphone from him and replied: “I have to tell you, he is a decent person, a person that you do not have to be scared [of] as president of the United States.”

A woman in the crowd (pictured above) remained unconvinced. Saying she didn't trust Obama, she added: “I have read about him. He’s an Arab.”

McCain, shaking his head, this time quickly ...

... reclaimed the mike and said: "No ma'am. He is a decent family man, a citizen who I just happen to have serious differences with on fundamental questions.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, pressure had been mounting on McCain to tamp down his troops in the face of stories focusing on the hard-edged tenor of his rallies this week (see here and here).

This afternoon, Dan Balz of the Washington Post -- a veteran, and consistently dispassionate, political journalist -- wrote that McCain camp tactics that had contributed to this mood "are over the line, with no restraint in sight, and threaten to provoke reactions among partisans on both sides that will continue to escalate."

More tellingly, other Republicans voiced similar concerns, including former Gov. William Milliken of Michigan and outgoing Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois.

McCain headlines a rally in Iowa on Saturday before returning to Washington for a break from campaigning. The gathering will be closely watched.

-- Don Frederick

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

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