CONCORD, N.H. Republican John McCain is asking the New Hampshire attorney general to investigate phone calls to voters that pretend to be polls but raise questions about rival candidate Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith and make favorable statements about McCain.
McCain's campaign says it had nothing to do with the calls but fears voters will think it did.
The telephone effort "was made to appear to be friendly to Senator McCain, but we had nothing to do with the poll at the state or national level," campaign vice chairman Chuck Douglas wrote in a letter asking the attorney general's office to investigate and tell the callers to stop.
McCain himself said Friday at a campaign stop in Colorado, "It is disgraceful, it is outrageous, and it is a violation, we believe, of New Hampshire law." He urged other candidates to join him in the legal action and referred to Romney as a "decent man."
Western Wats, a Utah-based company, placed the calls that initially sound like a poll but then pose questions that cast Romney in a harsh light, according to people who received the calls. In politics, this type of phone surveying is called "push polling" contacting potential voters and asking questions intended to plant a message, usually negative, rather than gauging attitudes.
A spokesman for the company would not comment on whether it made the calls. "Western Wats has never, currently does not, nor will it ever engage in push polling," its client services director, Robert Maccabee, said in a statement released Thursday night.
The 20-minute calls started on Sunday in New Hampshire and Iowa. At least seven people in the two early voting states received the calls.
Among the questions was whether the person receiving the call knew that Romney was a Mormon, that he received military deferments when he served as a Mormon missionary in France, that his five sons did not serve in the military, that Romney's faith did not accept blacks as bishops into the 1970s and that Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is superior to the Bible.
"It started out like all the other calls. ... Then all of the sudden it got very unsettling and very negative," said Anne Baker, an independent voter from Hollis, N.H.
"Whatever campaign is engaging in this type of awful religious bigotry as a line of political attack, it is repulsive and, to put it bluntly, un-American," Romney spokesman Matt Rhoades said. "There is no excuse for these attacks. Governor Romney is campaigning as an optimist who wants to lead the nation. These attacks are just the opposite. It's ugly and divisive."
In Iowa, Romney supporter and state representative Ralph Watts got a call on Wednesday.
"I was offended by the line of questioning," Watts said. "I don't think it has any place in politics."
Romney's Mormon faith has been an issue in his presidential bid, especially with conservative evangelicals who are central to his strategy to cast himself as the candidate for the GOP's family values voters.
Baker, who got a call in New Hampshire, said the caller initially wouldn't tell her who was behind it. Eventually, Baker was told the caller was from Western Wats.
Last year, Western Wats conducted polling that was intended to spread negative messages about Democratic candidates in a House race in New York and a Senate race in Florida, according to reports in The Tampa Tribune and the Albany Times Union, which also said Western Wats conducted the calls on behalf of the Tarrance Group.
That Virginia-based firm now works for Romney's rival, Rudy Giuliani. The campaign has paid the firm more than $400,000, according to federal campaign reports.
In his statement on behalf of Western Wats, Maccabee said the company was not currently conducting "any work for ... The Tarrance Group in the state of New Hampshire or Iowa, nor have we for the period in question."23 comments on this story
Maccabee added that confidentiality agreements prohibit the company from commenting on specific projects or clients.
Ed Goeas, chief of the Tarrance Group, said there is no connection between the Giuliani campaign and Western Wats.
"I know absolutely it's not us," Goeas said. "I can say with absolute, no, it's not us."
Western Wats also worked for Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. Employees said they used such calls at that time to describe GOP rival Steve Forbes as pro-abortion rights.New Hampshire law requires that all political advertising, including phone calls, identify the candidate being supported. No candidate was identified in the calls.
Associated Press Writer George Merritt contributed to this story from Colorado.