SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Democratic Sen. Barack Obama is defending his relationship with William Ayers, a college professor who was once part of the radical Weather Underground and spent years as a fugitive after a 1970 explosion that killed three members of the group.
Obama suggests he barely knows Ayers and shouldn't be held accountable for anything Ayers said or did. But others, including Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton, say the relationship gives Republicans an issue to exploit against Obama.
Obama was asked about Ayers as part of a discussion of his patriotism in a presidential debate Wednesday night in Philadelphia.
Obama responded that Ayers is "a guy who lives in my neighborhood" but hasn't endorsed him and doesn't regularly exchange ideas with him.
"And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn't make much sense," Obama said.
Clinton seized on Ayers as "an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising." She pointed out that Obama and Ayers served on a charity board together and brought the 9-11 terrorist attacks into the mix by noting that an interview in which Ayers denied any regret for the radical group's bomb-making happened to appear on the day of the attacks.
Ayers was part of the Weather Underground, a radical group that claimed credit for explosions at the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon and more. Originally known as the Weathermen, the group took its name from a Bob Dylan lyric: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."
In 1970, a bomb the group was making — to use against an Army base — exploded at a New York town house, killing three members. Ayers fled and spent years as a fugitive. He met and married fellow fugitive Bernadine Dohrn during that period.
The two surfaced in 1980. Ayers had been charged with various offenses stemming from demonstrations in Chicago in 1969, but those charges had been dismissed for prosecutorial misconduct. He never faced any charges related to the town house explosion. Dohrn pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated battery and two counts of bail-jumping in connection with a 1969 anti-war protest.
Ayers now teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Dohrn heads the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University. Ayers has advised Chicago Mayor Richard Daley on education issues.
Ayers and Obama both served on the board of directors of the Woods Fund, a Chicago-based charity that focuses on developing community groups to assist the poor. A variety of business executives, journalists and academics serve on the board.
When Obama was organizing his first race for the state legislature, the incumbent lawmaker he hoped to replace introduced him to her supporters and urged them to back Obama. One introductory event took place at the home of Ayers and Dohrn.
Ayers contributed $200 to Obama's legislative campaign in 2001, but there is no other sign that he has actively aided Obama's political career.
During Wednesday's debate, Obama argued that if the candidates are to be held responsible for distant connections to the Weather Underground, then Clinton would fail, too. He pointed out that her husband, just before leaving the White House, commuted the sentences of two members of the group who had been convicted of weapons and explosives charges.