[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/10/06/art.obama.pa.gi.jpg caption="McCain camp dismisses claim that Obama didn't know Ayers' past."]
(CNN) - John McCain’s campaign is dismissing statements by senior aides to Barack Obama that the Illinois senator had been unaware of former Weather Underground member William Ayers’ past when the two men met more than a decade ago.
“Does Barack Obama truly expect the American people to believe that he had no idea about his friend’s past as the infamous founder of the domestic terror group ‘The Weather Underground’ or is he just lying?” McCain-Palin spokesman Tucker Bounds said in a statement. “If Obama really was unaware of Ayers' radical past, learning the truth doesn't seem to have had any effect on their friendship, since the senator later endorsed a book by Ayers, and served on the same charitable board and exchanged e-mails and calls for several more years.”
Obama senior strategist David Axelrod had made that claim in an interview with CNN's Jim Acosta that aired Monday. “I mean… when he went, he certainly, he didn’t know the history,” said Axelrod – the first time a top campaign aide had said Obama did not know about Ayers’ past when they met.
The remark came after days of attacks from Republican VP nominee Sarah Palin over Obama’s relationship with the controversial Ayers. On Monday, Palin described Ayers as one of Obama’s “earliest supporters” and Obama as “someone who sees America as ‘imperfect enough’ to work with a former domestic terrorist who targeted his own country.”
When CNN American Morning’s John Roberts asked Obama senior advisor Robert Gibbs Monday whether Axelrod’s statement was accurate, the campaign aide responded: "Look, if that's what David said, that is true. Look, again, this is a relationship... that Barack Obama has condemned the actions of Bill Ayers. This is somebody that The New York Times said Barack Obama's not close to - and again, John, this is a way of distracting the American people from what's important."
The Ayers charges are part of a new effort by the McCain campaign to raise doubts about Obama’s character and to portray him as an unknown risk. “Voters are left wondering who Obama is and what he stands for," the campaign said in a statement.