‘Robo call' wave hits state

Voters in North Carolina and at least nine other swing states are receiving hundreds of thousands of automated telephone calls – uniformly negative and sometimes misleading – that the Republican Party and the McCain campaign are financing this week.

John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, has belittled such calls in the past: In the 2000 primaries, he was a target of misleading calls and blamed them in part for his loss to George W. Bush.

This January, too, in South Carolina, McCain described the calls against him as “scurrilous stuff.” His campaign set up a truth squad to debunk them.

On Friday, a Democratic officeholder in Minnesota said he received one type of these so-called “robo calls” — this one featuring a live person – and tracked it back to a company owned by a prominent Republican consultant, Jeff Larson. According to news reports, Larson and his previous firm helped develop the phone calls in 2000 that targeted McCain.

A McCain campaign spokesman could not say Friday night whether it had contracted with Larson's current company, FLS Connect. Phone messages left for Larson received no response on Friday, nor did messages left at a subcontractor, King TeleServices.

The Minnesota Democrat, Christopher Shoff, a commissioner in Freeborn County, said the call 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 Inc. 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.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said that the calls placed this year are different than those that targeted McCain in 2000 because they are “100 percent true.” He added that it was “crazy” to compare these calls with the ones in 2000, which described the McCains' “interracial child” – a reference to the child from Bangladesh whom the McCains adopted.

Ben LaBolt, an Obama spokesman, said McCain's use of robo calls shows “just how much Senator McCain has changed since then – adopting not only President Bush's policies but his tactics.”

LaBolt initially said Friday that the Obama campaign was not making any robo calls “at the present time.” Soon after, he asked to change his comment to issue this statement: “The focus of all of our communications is on the direction Senator Obama will take the country, and on policy differences between the candidates on issues like health care.”

LaBolt did not reply when twice asked by e-mail if the Obama campaign was currently making robo calls.