WASHINGTON -- Saul Alinsky surfaced as a factor in the presidential contest last year, in stories about how the legendary Chicago community organizer -- who worked in the Back of the Yards and Woodlawn -- directly influenced Hillary Rodham Clinton and indirectly touched Barack Obama, then Democratic primary rivals.
Now Alinsky is back in the closing days of the Obama-McCain contest, being demonized by McCain surrogates as if he were still alive.
The McCain-Palin ticket is invoking Alinsky, Bill Ayers, the former terrorist now Chicago professor, and ACORN, the community group created in the Alinsky tradition (under investigation for botched voter registration drives) as they argue Obama has "socialist" views.
The Republican National Committee is paying for robo-calls targeting millions of voters in 10 key battleground states with this inflammatory message about Ayers:
"Hello, I'm calling for John McCain and the RNC because you need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers whose organizations bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home, and killed Americans. . . ."
While RNC spokesman Danny Diaz told me the calls -- in the millions, he said -- have been going out for "quite some time," they have been getting more attention in the last few days because "we have increased the volume over the last week or so."
It's all part of a McCain strategy to raise questions about Obama's associations, and therefore his judgment. Obama worked with Ayers on civic boards in Chicago starting in the 1990s -- years after Ayers was a part of the violent anti-Vietnam war Weather Underground.
Now Alinsky's name is being dragged in the mix. During an interview Friday on Andrea Mitchell's MSNBC show, Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) said, "Obama started out with Saul Alinsky." Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) told Chris Matthews on "Hardball" that Alinsky was "one of his teachers, you might say."
Someone needs to rewrite their talking points. Alinsky, born in Chicago on Jan. 30, 1909, died June 12, 1972 in Carmel, Calif. -- when Obama was 10.
Alinsky's techniques and teachings influenced generations of community and labor organizers, including the church-based group hiring a young Obama to work on Chicago's South Side in the 1980s.
Alinsky -- whose Reveille for Radicals was the training manual for organizers -- impressed a young Clinton, who was growing up in Park Ridge at the time Alinsky was the director of the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago. At Wellesley, Clinton wrote her senior thesis on the "Alinsky Model" of organizing.
Alinsky's son David, backed Clinton in the primary. He told me Saturday, "It is amazing to me that even so long after his death that the Republicans still think that he is such a threat, that his ideas are so anathema to them, that God forbid that the people should have the power to say what they want or how they feel about something. I mean that seems to be very scary to them."
Alinsky's techniques were more tactical than ideological. Obama is winning in part because he created effective, penetrating organizing operations in red states like Virginia, expanding his electoral map. The Obama office I visited Saturday in McLean, Va. was humming.
Republicans need a strong ground game to counter Obama's "movement." They should be studying -- not smearing -- Alinsky.