is at odds with many of his top advisers over launching a renewed attack on ties to his long-time pastor and mentor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, according to campaign sources.
Alaskaand several top campaign officials see a sharp attack on Wright as the best - and perhaps last - chance to rattle Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill. ) and force voters to rethink their support of him. But McCain continues to overrule them, fearing a Wright attack would smack of desperation and racism, the officials said.
With McCain unlikely to budge, GOP officials are hoping groups outside of the campaign will finance an ad attack on Obama-Wright ties. It is unclear if any conservative group has the cash to bankroll a serious effort, however.
"Wright is off the table," said one top campaign official. "It's all McCain. He won't go there. His advisers would have gone there."
The aides argue that the 20 years that Obama spent in the fiery Wright's pastoral care-and his later assertion that he knew nothing of his former minister's more extreme statements-provide an opening to challenge Obama's judgment and honesty in a relevant and politically resonant way.
"He was a central figure in Obama's life, shaping Obama's thinking, and he made the extreme radical comments that are borderline anti-American," the campaign official said.
But McCain will not allow it, according to campaign sources.
"There's a slippery slope in politics on the racial divide, and Senator McCain made it very clear early on that he did not want to get into that area," a top Republican official said. "I don't want to be known as a racist, and McCain doesn't want to be known as a racist candidate."
Among those who think Wright is fair game is McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who told conservative commentator William Kristol for a New York Times column last month: "To tell you the truth, Bill, I don't know why that association isn't discussed more, because those were appalling things that that pastor had said about our great country, and to have sat in the pews for 20 years and listened to that - with, I don't know, a sense of condoning it, I guess, because he didn't get up and leave - to me, that does say something about character. But, you know, I guess that would be a John McCain call on whether he wants to bring that up."
In his famous speech on race, delivered in Philadelphia in March, Obama condemned Wright's use of "incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike."
Wright, who married the Obamas and baptized their daughters, has shown no remorse for his videotaped tirades - most famously, "God damn America," which he said several times in a row. At the National Press Club in April, he said: "I said to Barack Obama last year, 'If you get elected, November the 5th I'm coming after you, because you'll be representing a government whose policies grind under people.'"
In early June, on the brink of clinching the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama tried to put the controversy behind him by announcing that he and his wife, Michelle, were leaving Wright's former church, Trinity United Church of Christ, "with some sadness." Obama said it had become clear statements made at the church "will be imputed to me, even if they conflict with my long-held, views, statements and principles."
The McCain campaign's decision to cordon off the use of Wright from ads and debates has provoked simmering consternation among many leading Republicans and conservatives, who believe the pastor's fulminations might be the single most effective weapon McCain has left against Obama.
"McCain felt it would be sensed as racially insensitive," the official said. "But more important is that McCain thinks that the bringing of racial religious preaching in black churches into the campaign would potentially have grave consequences for civil society in the United States."
Asked about the issue during the firestorm over it last March, McCain told Sean Hannity on Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes": "I think that when people support you, it doesn't mean that you support everything they say. Obviously, those words and those statements are statements that none of us would associate ourselves with. And I don't believe that Senator Obama would support any of those … I do know Senator Obama. He does not share those views."
Conservatives who want McCain to focus on Wright contend that the omission is another sign of a campaign that is unwilling to play tough enough with the Obama juggernaut.
As the top Republican official said: "There is a future beyond this election."
By Mike Allen