The Obama campaign is planning to expand its research and rapid-response team in order to repel attacks it anticipates over his ties to 1960s radical Bill Ayers, indicted developer Antoin Rezko and other figures from his past. David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, tells NEWSWEEK that the Illinois senator won't let himself be "Swift Boated" like John Kerry in 2004. "He's not going to sit there and sing 'Kumbaya' as the missiles are raining in," Axelrod said. "I don't think people should mistake civility for a willingness to deal with the challenges to come." The move appears to be an acknowledgment that the Obama campaign may not have moved aggressively enough when questions about Ayers and Rezko first arose, and it comes amid fresh indications that conservative groups are preparing a wave of attack ads over the links.
Operatives such as David Bossie, whose Citizens United group made the Willie Horton ad that helped sink Michael Dukakis's 1988 presidential bid, are sharpening knives as expectations mount that Obama will be their target in the fall. Bossie says he is assembling material for TV spots about Obama's ties with Ayers, a Chicago professor and unrepentant former member of the Weather Underground, a group that bombed several government buildings to protest the Vietnam War. The Ayers issue bounced around right-wing media for months, but it received broad exposure at last week's debate on ABC, when Obama was asked a question about their relationship. Obama, who lives near Ayers in Chicago's Hyde Park, attended an event at Ayers's house when Obama ran for the state Senate in 1995—and served on the board of a nonprofit with him for several years. "Obama is aware of the acts Ayers committed when he was 8 years old and has called them 'detestable'," says spokesman Ben LaBolt, adding that Obama occasionally bumps into Ayers in his neighborhood "but has not seen him for months." At a recent dinner party, according to one guest who asked not to be identified discussing a private gathering, Ayers "ridiculed" the notion that Obama shared his left-wing views: "He thought the idea that there was a political connection between them was absurd." (Ayers declined to comment.)
Rezko's Chicago corruption trial, meanwhile, continues to raise questions for Obama. Last week a prosecution witness testified that Obama attended a 2004 party at Rezko's mansion for Nadhmi Auchi, an Iraqi tycoon who was later banned from the United States due to a fraud conviction in France. A spokeswoman for Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn told NEWSWEEK that the event was a sit-down dinner, at which Quinn made a brief speech welcoming Auchi to Chicago. According to court documents, Rezko later sought to enlist unnamed "Illinois government officials" for help lobbying the Feds to allow Auchi back into the country. A lawyer for Auchi says his client denies any wrongdoing in France and has no recollection of meeting Obama; the senator, who denies doing any favors for Auchi, "does not recall attending this event," says Obama spokesman LaBolt, nor does he "recall meeting Mr. Auchi at any other time."