- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Initially pushed to the sidelines by the presidential nominees, independent political groups are readying a 24/7 barrage of attack ads designed to influence Americans’ choices at the ballot box in November.

The tax-exempt political groups known as 527s will use negative ads to remind voters about Sen. Barack Obama’s controversial former pastor, and to suggest that Sen. John McCain’s temperament makes him a frightening choice to have his “finger near the red button.”

Both presidential hopefuls once derided these independent groups - named for their section of the tax code and limited to few campaign-finance restrictions - and so they remained mostly dormant for months.

But as the campaign heats up, 527s and other political action committees from across the political spectrum are planning major pushes to influence voters in the final six weeks of the campaign.

“We have to spread the truth about McCain ourselves because it’s clear the corporate media won’t,” reads the description on a YouTube ad from BraveNewPac. In capital letters, it adds, “Now. Fast. Furious. Everywhere.”

The group, an offshoot of liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films, has paid for a television spot featuring a former prisoner of war portraying Mr. McCain as emotionally disturbed. Philip Butler says he knows Mr. McCain and adds that the prisoner of war experience is “not a good prerequisite” for the presidency.

“He was well known as a very volatile guy, and he would blow up and go off like a Roman candle,” says Mr. Butler, who also was imprisoned in Vietnam. “John McCain is not somebody that I would like to see with his finger near the red button.”

Meanwhile, some people involved with the group that damaged Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign in 2004 - the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth - have targeted Mr. Obama under the name American Issues Project.

“I don’t think the public cares how you characterize who is making an ad or who is behind it. I think they care about the substance of the ad,” said Ed Martin, a St. Louis lawyer who has long worked on behalf of Republicans.

“Do you really know enough about what this guy is about?” he said of the Illinois Democrat. “What I know about his background is worrisome.”

AIP is not a 527, and Mr. Martin insists it will remain solvent after the Nov. 4 election to continue issue advocacy.

He said the group formed to combat the “hundreds of millions” that left-leaning groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and others would inevitably spend on the election, along with Mr. Obama’s decision to opt out of the public financing system that forces campaigns to abide by spending limits.

However, 527s have been less active than during the 2004 election cycle.

AIP has spent nearly $3 million to run one ad questioning Mr. Obama’s past association with William Ayers, a member of the domestic terrorist group the Weather Underground. The Obama campaign ran a response ad to combat the spot in the swing states such as Ohio.

The Ayers ad was financed by a Texas billionaire who also funded the Swift Boat group. Former White House adviser Karl Rove has been encouraging major Republican donors to fund independent groups.

Mr. McCain came to Mr. Kerry’s defense four years ago, saying the Swift Boat campaign was “dishonest and dishonorable” and a “cheap stunt.”

Independent group Vets for Freedom on Wednesday will announce a $400,000 ad campaign attacking Mr. Obama and praising the troop surge credited with bringing more stability to Iraq. The ad stacks up video clips of Gen. David H. Petraeus, architect of the Iraq troop surge, against clips of Mr. Obama saying the surge was failing. Mr. Obama has since acknowledged that the surge succeeded militarily.

MoveOn.org Political Action has run several ads critical of Mr. McCain’s position on the war and Tuesday released a spot using the Arizona Republican’s signature greeting of “my friends” against him, saying his friends are the lobbyists who work for his campaign. It tells viewers, “John McCain is no friend of yours.”

VoteVets, which has an active campaign for congressional candidates, has produced a Web ad targeting Mr. McCain titled “McCain Means the Draft.” It uses his own responses from town-hall forums to suggest he would reinstate a military draft.

California-based Our Country Deserves Better PAC, funded and organized by Republicans, has crafted a 60-second spot making broad and inaccurate assertions about Mr. Obama’s stance on diplomacy.

“He says he’ll play nicey-nice with Islamic militants who want to kill Americans both here at home and abroad,” says Deborah Johns, the mother of a Marine who has served in Iraq.

Another ad mentions the “hateful sermons” from his former pastor the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright and questions Mr. Obama’s patriotism.

A new 527 called Born Alive Truth is running an ad in New Mexico and Ohio featuring Gianna Jessen, who was born after a failed abortion.

“If Barack Obama had his way I would not be here,” she says in the ad, which cites his votes on a bill in the Illinois Senate.

A Planned Parenthood action fund ad defends Mr. Obama and says, “John McCain is twisting the facts.” It suggests “after 26 years in Washington” he is nothing more than “another politician who will say anything to get elected.”

Though the majority of the ads running are against Mr. Obama, the McCain campaign called the BraveNewPac ad “vile” and said it was released “apparently at the behest of the Obama campaign.”

McCain aides cited an Atlantic blog report that unnamed Obama aides had “quietly” signaled to 527 groups that they could use their activity to attack the Republican.

But senior Obama adviser Robert Gibbs said on MSNBC Monday, “We don’t want people to participate in 527s.”

“In fact, many 527s on the Democratic side folded because we asked people not to participate in that type of campaign, but instead participate in our campaign,” he said.

One of those groups is California-based PowerPAC, whose actions Mr. Obama condemned during the primary season.

The group in August released a positive spot to run in New Mexico and target Hispanic voters. The ad states, “Barack Obama believes it shouldn’t matter if you look different,” and portrays him as “a new kind of leader” who played by the rules to achieve his dream.

Labor unions also have been spending heavily on the race on behalf of Mr. Obama and against Mr. McCain.

For example, the AFL-CIO has approved a political budget of $53 million and its affiliated unions are expected to spend an additional $200 million on political activities. The National Education Association is expected to spend more than $40 million and the Service Employees International Union has designated $100 million.

Stephen Dinan and Jeffrey Birnbaum contributed to this report.

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