How Ugly Is It?

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As Joe notes below, news reports from John McCain rallies of recent days have suggested there is a growing intensity, anger and just plain ugliness to the crowds that are showing up to hear the candidate and his running mate. Stories have included references to racial epithets and even calls for violence from McCain supporters. And, of course, much of it directed at the media. How bad is it? I happened to catch part of Rush Limbaugh’s show yesterday, and he was asserting that all these stories about the new tone at John McCain’s rallies are a figment of the media’s collective imagination.

I haven’t been out with McCain lately myself, so I can’t report first-hand whether this is something significant, or the kind of random thing that typically happens when a hard-fought race moves into its final weeks. But I can’t think of anyone I would trust more to judge this than my former TIME colleague John Dickerson, now with Slate, who since the 2000 campaign has covered McCain more closely and perceptively than just about any reporter I know. Here’s what he writes:

There was a time when John McCain would give it right back to the hecklers at a John McCain town-hall meeting. It was part of his charm: He would confront these hecklers and argue with them about his supposed Republican apostasies on judicial appointments or immigration.

No longer. Now hecklers help stir the room. The candidate and his audience are in agreement about the grave national danger posed by Barack Obama and the media.

How much have things changed at McCain’s town-hall events? In New Hampshire, with just a few weeks before the primary, a man asked McCain why he didn’t bash the press (particularly the New York Times) for reporting bad news from Iraq and trying soldiers accused of wrongdoing in the news pages. McCain said he didn’t agree with the man’s characterizations. He didn’t defend the press per se, but he defended its characterization of the troubles in Iraq and talked about the need to hold rogue soldiers to account. In a close contest in which embracing media-bashing would have helped him, McCain refused.

Now McCain and Sarah Palin regularly blame the media for not questioning Obama, though Palin is the more aggressive of the two. “I can’t pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrelful,” said Palin. “But we’re in dangerous territory when mainstream media isn’t asking all the questions. I know when my impatience shows some of you think that I’m trying to provide job security for Tina Fey, but I am like you and wonder, too, when will the questions be asked, and when will we get the answers?”

When the event was over and we got on the press bus to the airport, some of McCain’s supporters gave us a single-finger salute. But I’m not insulted. I prefer to think that, as with their candidate, they’re just trying to buck us up, too: We’re No. 1!

UPDATE: It’s not getting prettier.

UPDATE2: And Greg Sargent reports it is trickling down the ballot.

UPDATE3, shortly after 6 PM Eastern on Friday: At a town hall in Minnesota, McCain has appealed to his supporters to be respectful of Obama and has called him “a decent person.”:

“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.”

Ana is there and will be posting on it shortly.

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