CHICAGO (AFP) — Republican vice presidential pick Sarah Palin faced accusations Sunday of handing jobs to friends while serving as Alaska state governor, as the presidential campaign grew increasingly negative.
The New York Times reported that Palin had given the 95,000-dollar-a-year directorship of the state division of agriculture to a high school classmate, Franci Havemeister, who cited her childhood love of cows as a qualification for running the agency.
Havemeister was one of at least five schoolmates Palin hired, often at salaries far exceeding their private sector wages, the paper noted in an investigative report.
"Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials," The Times wrote.
The paper said that its investigation had shown that in Alaska, Palin was running an administration that "puts a premium on loyalty and secrecy."
According to the findings, the governor and her top aides sometimes use personal e-mail accounts for state business, and dozens of e-mails obtained by The Times showed that her staff members studied whether that could allow them to beat subpoenas seeking public records.
The revelations came a day after the presidential campaign had been dominated by Hurricane Ike.
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama urged his supporters Saturday to help victims of the monstrous storm while also promising economic relief to hard-pressed Americans suffering "quiet storms" in their own lives.
His Republican White House rival, John McCain, expressed his own sympathy for those upended by Ike, which slammed into Texas packing a massive ocean surge, knocking out power to millions and flooding coastal areas.
But the race also grew more negative, with McCain's spokesman accusing Obama of bad-taste politicking on the day of a natural disaster, and the Obama team alleging McCain was running the "least honorable" US campaign yet.
Obama rolled out a new advertisement, a website and a series of events by officials in 16 states to highlight the presence of former corporate lobbyists at the highest echelons of McCain's campaign team.
Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod said the new offensive was a bid to "challenge the masquerade" of McCain, who Democrats have accused of voting in lock-step with President George W. Bush despite claiming to be an agent of change.
Addressing 7,000 people at a sunny outdoors rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, Obama appealed to his army of more than two million donors to open their wallets and volunteer for relief work as Ike tore into Texas.
"During moments of tragedy the American people come together. We may argue, we may differ but we are all American and one of the principles of this great country is that during times of need, we are all in it together," he said.
The Illinois senator had already appealed to his donors to contribute funds to help victims of Hurricane Gustav, which forced McCain to curtail the first day of the Republican convention on September 1.
In a statement, McCain said he and his wife Cindy offered their "prayers and assistance." Like Obama, McCain said he had been in touch with federal and state leaders to gauge the official response to Ike.
"Their combined determination to address immediate evacuations and relief support was encouraging, but I am increasingly concerned that there may have been a substantial loss of life," he said.
Obama said that even while he kept Ike victims in his prayers, "one of the things I've learned over the last 19 months is that a lot of people are going through their own trials and their own tribulations."
"There are a lot of quiet storms that are taking place throughout America," he said pointing to rising job losses, home seizures and a healthcare crisis.
Obama scrapped a planned appearance on the cult comedy program "Saturday Night Live" and headed from New Hampshire straight to Chicago to monitor the storm.
He had been due to appear in Manchester with his vice presidential nominee, Joseph Biden, but the Delaware senator stayed away.
McCain said in his weekly radio address that he and his running mate Palin would drive through root-and-branch reform of Washington.
He and the Alaska governor, who has revitalized the Republican ticket, "not only promise big change in Washington -- we have records of change to back up our words," McCain said.
"We offer not only change you can believe in, but change you can verify," he said, satirizing Obama's campaign slogan.
The latest national poll from Newsweek had McCain and Obama tied on 46 percent each, with the Republican gaining five points since July.
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