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Super-PACs can provide muscle

Help candidates do the campaign heavy lifting

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As Herman Cain went from obscurity to a leading Republican presidential candidate following well-received debate performances, the campaign infrastructure of the former pizza company executive, who has never held office, remained fit for a political novice.

That's when Jordan Gehrke decided to run for president for him.

As the first presidential race in the new era of independent, little-regulated "super-PACs" takes shape, it has been with a wink that the groups, whose sole missions are identical to campaigns and which are often run by associates of the candidate, have proclaimed separation.

But in the rare case when the new system works as it's supposed to - when the groups actually are entirely unrelated to the candidate - a separate question, and a new industry, emerges. The scenario is occurring for the first time on a national scale with a man who has never met Mr. Cain, but has decided to make a business out of raising money in his name and getting him elected president.

GRAPHIC: The men behind Americans for Herman Cain

It is a situation that could become common as Washington outsiders, many with tea party credentials, turn inexperience into an asset with early voters, but find that it doesn't scale in a world of high-tech, high-stakes national campaigns. At the ready is an army of political professionals who can essentially hire themselves to run independent groups, hitching their wagons to a candidate's name.

Mr. Gehrke's new group, Americans for Herman Cain, is gearing up to aggressively solicit donations from tea party supporters and placed 50,000 phone calls in Iowa last weekend, he said.

While Mr. Cain's official website has been riddled with problems, Mr. Gehrke's group has run crisp fundraising solicitations complete with polished video of the candidate. Mr. Cain's first major ad attracted attention as amateurish. Its soundtrack was provided by the wife of a campaign staffer, who was paid $10,000. The official campaign failed to collect required information from donors. No one from the Cain campaign responded to several phone calls.

"We're operating with people with a lot of experience. I don't know what kind of experience some of his campaign staff has had," said Scott Mackenzie, the super-PAC's treasurer.

Such lack of organization and savvy by a candidate's campaign, once fatal, could mean less now. "Can a candidate now run with a minimalist staff and have outside groups do all the heavy lifting?" asked Bill Allison, a money-in-politics expert at the Sunlight Foundation.

"I saw the need and decided to try to fill it," said Mr. Gehrke.

Big bucks for any political consultant who wants them could mean a mishmash of messages for viewers. Ads by third parties are more likely to market candidates using traditional talking points than advance substance.

And outsourced campaigns are more likely to be negative. If negativity goes overboard, "Cain could wind up disavowing Americans for Herman Cain," Mr. Alllison added.

For political professionals, newly relaxed campaign finance rules could open up a new economy.

In place of a select few high-powered, overworked top staffers tightly controlling messaging come operatives who can perform well-paid work on whatever scale and pace suits them - financed by tapping, at will, ideological fervor and widespread interest in the race.

"One of the outgrowths is going to be a thousands flowers can actually bloom and people can participate in the process in expensive ways," said Bob Biersack, a recently retired Federal Elections Commission official.

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