WASHINGTON (AFP) — Republican John McCain Thursday faced down a fiery evangelical pastor backing his White House bid who, it was revealed, believed the Nazis did God's will by chasing Jews from Europe.
But while McCain disavowed the Texas pastor, John Hagee, the Arizona senator aimed a pointed dig at his Democratic rival Barack Obama's own preacher problems in observing he had never been part of Hagee's flock.
The issue, which has the potential to embarrass McCain among independent voters, erupted as the Republican and Obama traded highly personal invective over a bill to give college education to Iraq and Afghan war veterans.
McCain, the presumed Republican nominee for November's presidential election, issued a statement after the Huffington Post website posted audio of the 1990s remarks by Hagee.
"Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them," he said.
"I did not know of them before Reverend Hagee's endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well."
The website also published comments by Hagee that Adolf Hitler was a "hunter" sent by God to herd Jews to the land of Israel.
Some commentators have compared the episode to Obama's own political drama over racially tinged sermons by his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, which threw the Illinois senator's campaign onto the defensive for weeks.
McCain stressed: "I have said I do not believe Senator Obama shares Reverend Wright's extreme views.
"But let me also be clear, Reverend Hagee was not and is not my pastor or spiritual advisor, and I did not attend his church for 20 years.
"I have denounced statements he made immediately upon learning of them, as I do again today."
Hagee, whose endorsement was sought by McCain in February, was quoted by the Huffington Post on Thursday as saying that the sermon about Hitler and the Jews had been "intentionally mischaracterized" and was a "gross example of bias."
"To assert that I in any way condone the Holocaust or that monster Adolf Hitler is the biggest and ugliest of lies," Hagee said in a statement to the website.
Hagee, a well-known tele-evangelist, founded the strongly pro-Israel Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. It has 19,000 members, according to his website.
Democrat Hillary Clinton, still clinging to hopes of blocking Obama's drive towards the nomination, fought to stay in the limelight even as aides to both her rival and McCain charted terrain for a presidential battle in November.
Clinton's campaign took heart from a new Quinnipiac University survey suggesting she would beat McCain in three swing states -- Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. Obama was ahead of the Republican only in Pennsylvania.
But with Obama seemingly enjoying a mathematical lock on the party's nomination heading into the final contests on June 3, both he and McCain stoked speculation about their vice presidential picks.
McCain was reported this weekend to be meeting three potential running mates -- Florida Governor Charlie Crist, the Indian-American governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, and former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
Other reports said Obama, despite banning public comment from his top aides about the issue to avoid angering Clinton, had begun to quietly assemble a team to vet prospective VP candidates.
The Obama and McCain campaigns refused to comment.
With the contours of a November battle taking on sharper definition, Obama and McCain traded some of their harshest personal attacks yet as the Senate adopted the bill offering a fully paid college education to the veterans.
In an unusually direct speech on the Senate floor, Obama said he could not understand why the Vietnam War hero would back President George W. Bush's opposition to the bill.
"I can't believe why he believes it is too generous to our veterans," he said of McCain, who favors an alternative approach that would boost benefits according to a service member's length of service.
McCain shot back in a statement: "I take a back seat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans.
"I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did," he said. Obama in turn condemned McCain's "schoolyard taunts."
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