Outside groups step up ads

As race tightens, campaigns are increasingly turning a blind eye

Election 2008

September 16, 2008|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON - After largely staying on the sidelines, the types of independent groups that so affected the 2004 presidential campaign are flooding back as players in the final sprint to the election this fall, financing provocative messages on television, in mailboxes and through the Internet.

MoveOn, the progressive group started 10 years ago to fight President Clinton's impeachment, says it will double its advertising budget to $7 million and start a new campaign this week that ties Republican John McCain to lobbyists.

The Service Employees International Union has begun a $2.1 million advertising campaign that criticizes McCain's economic record, while a smattering of smaller liberal groups are testing out more limited television campaigns, including one by two groups - Brave New PAC and Democracy for America - that asserts his experience as a prisoner of war "is not a good prerequisite" to be president.

The Minutemen, a group calling for stricter border security, has filed paperwork with election officials indicating it will run mailers against Democrat Barack Obama. An anti-abortion group, BornAliveTruth.org, announced yesterday that it would begin running an advertisement in New Mexico and Ohio, featuring a woman who survived a botched abortion.

And the American Issues Project, a conservative group whose main backer is a major fundraiser for McCain, said it was considering whether to expand its efforts beyond its existing advertisement that links Obama to the 1960s radical William Ayers Jr.

Hewing to their reformist themes, the McCain and Obama campaigns initially tried to discourage such activities on their behalf. But as the race has intensified in its closing weeks, the campaigns have increasingly turned a blind eye to the activities of these groups, which sometimes operate outside campaign finance rules and with little accountability.

The activities have led aides to both candidates to trade accusations that the other is secretly behind the new attacks by the independent groups. Campaign watchdogs are on the lookout for whether the activities run afoul of election laws that prohibit coordination between the groups and the campaigns.

Citing changes to the rules that make it easier for outside groups to advertise right up to Election Day, political advertising analysts predicted that the new efforts were the start of a crescendo of attacks.

"I think in the next two weeks you are going to see a lot more of these coming out of the woodwork," said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which monitors expenditures on advertising. "They want to get messages out there that are the most disruptive politically, and the closer you are to Election Day the more disruptive you are by definition."

Tracey said he doubted that the efforts, many of them at their nascent stages, would come anywhere near matching the level of activity in 2004. So far this year, the outside groups have spent roughly a 10th of the $75 million that their predecessors did four years ago on TV advertising.

The leaders of the groups say their donors and members have stepped up their efforts because polls suggest the race has gotten closer and become increasingly dominated by harsh exchanges between the campaigns.

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