When Mitt Romney's backers started a super PAC, it seemed they had hoped to hold their fire until the general election. But Newt Gingrich may have shaken both Romney and Obama strategists' assurance that the former Massachusetts governor will make it that far. The silence of the cash-flush Restore Our Future super PAC had been one of the most telling signs of insiders' beliefs about who the eventual Republican nominee would be.
With eight months to go before the Republican National Convention, where a nominee will formally be chosen to face off against President Obama, a shadow general election already seemed to be playing out. With the incumbent president freed of an intraparty challenger, a super PAC helmed by one of Mr. Obama's former top political strategists, Bill Burton, was actively attacking one Republican candidate and one candidate only: Mitt Romney.
On Mr. Romney's side was the super PAC formed by his 2008 presidential campaign's general counsel, Charlie Spies. As one Republican candidate after another rose through the pack with poll numbers that matched or beat Mr. Romney's — first Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry and later Herman Cain — the group displayed only restraint.
It was not for a lack of funds. The 2010 Supreme Court ruling that created the unlimited-donation vessels, Citizens United, seemed tailor-made for Romney backers — overwhelmingly wealthy financial-sector workers for whom the $2,500 cap on contributions to official campaigns was most restrictive. The committee even made news for taking three $1 million contributions from cryptically named limited liability corporations, at least one of which formed specifically to hide the identity of the financier behind the donation.
Despite the resources to go after both Mr. Romney's Republican rivals and Mr. Obama, the fund seemed to be looking only ahead. After announcing a $12 million haul in July, it curiously was not heard from again.
Until now. The first rival to break Romney operatives' gaze away from November 2012 was a candidate more often associated with 1994, Newt Gingrich. On Thursday, Restore Our Future shattered its silence with a massive $827,000 ad buy targeting the former House speaker in Iowa, the largest independent expenditure of the presidential race so far, disclosures filed Saturday with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) showed.
An ad that appeared briefly online and was then taken down employed brass tacks against Mr. Gingrich, attacking on issues similar to those on which Mr. Romney himself has drawn flak.
"Newt was a longtime supporter of a national health insurance mandate, the centerpiece of Obamacare. ... The Gingrich record: 30 years in Washington. Flip-flopping on issues." Restore our Future also registered a website, NewtFacts.com. The group announced Thursday that it would be spending a blistering $3.1 million on ads in Iowa in the next three weeks to promote the candidate, but it did not say it would be attacking Mr. Gingrich rather than juxtaposing Mr. Romney with Mr. Obama.
The ad that hit the airwaves at that time, whose cost has not yet been disclosed to the FEC, made only that juxtaposition.
"How many jobs did Barack Obama create as a community organizer? As a law professor?" the ad asks.
Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for Mr. Obama's campaign, responded in a statement that Mr. Romney's "allies are riding to his rescue, spending millions of dollars in secret, undisclosed donations to promote a candidate who will put Wall Street profit ahead of middle class security."
But Mr. Obama's allies have their own fund waiting in the wings, one whose donations are subject to the same regulations and disclosure as Restore Our Future's. Called Priorities USA Action, the group has made seven ad buys since May, and while the president himself mounts a positive campaign, all seven super PAC ads have been negative, and each has targeted Mr. Romney. The difference may be only in the millions of dollars: The Obama super PAC's buys have totaled $306,000, and its last purchase was in early November.
The group, which Mr. Burton quit the president's staff to help direct, had raised $3.2 million as of July — including from lobbyists and unions, whose contributions the official Obama campaign refuses — but had already spent much of it, leaving less than the amount the Romney group plans to spend in Iowa alone.
A super PAC supporting Mr. Gingrich, Solutions 2012, launched last month, but has not reported running any ads. On Thursday, an independent super PAC from Democratic consultant T.J. Walker formed with promises to air an ad opposing Mr. Romney, featuring the candidate speaking French, starting Monday on cable TV and Iowa websites.
The spending has shown that while conventional wisdom held that Mr. Romney was the "inevitable" nominee, pollsters and politicos close to the candidates, too, conducted themselves as though he is the man to beat.
"It's not so much that Democrats view Romney as inevitable, it's that he's the most likely to beat Obama," Mr. Walker said. Democrats are "drooling at the prospect of the party throwing Romney over and flocking to Gingrich."
The Romney group's attack on Mr. Gingrich throws a wrench in the conviction of eventuality, and the pause in the Obama group's attack could indicate it is standing back to let the Republicans bloody themselves.
"By running a blisteringly negative campaign against Newt Gingrich, Romney's Restore Our Future may well be hurting Romney by underscoring doubts and concerns conservatives already had against him," Mr. Burton said in an email to The Washington Times.
"We've focused on Romney because he's been the most likely nominee thus far. But Newt Gingrich will get his turn in the barrel soon enough."
The fact that Mr. LaBolt even responded to the Restore our Future ad buy shows that Mr. Obama views Mr. Romney with a trepidation that he does not reserve for other candidates.
Asked to respond to a Rick Perry ad Friday, spokesman Jay Carney would say only: "I think that I'll limit my comment on the struggling state of some presidential campaigns."
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