Supporters of President Obama refused Thursday to pull a TV ad suggesting that Republican Mitt Romney caused a woman to die from cancer, a commercial that is raising questions about suspected coordination between the Obama campaign and an advocacy group founded by a former White House staffer.
“You know, in the past when somebody pointed out that something was inaccurate, campaigns … pulled the ad; they were embarrassed,” Mr. Romney said Thursday on Bill Bennett’s “Morning in America” radio show. “Today, they just blast ahead.”
But officials at Priorities USA, a super PAC founded by former White House spokesman Bill Burton, showed no signs of canceling the advertisement, which began airing this week. Even some Democrats said the ad crossed the line into the realm of the underhanded with its strong inference that Mr. Romney has a dead woman’s blood on his hands.
The ad features steelworker Joe Soptic, who lost his job and health care benefits after Mr. Romney’s Bain Capital closed a steel plant in Kansas City, Mo., in 2001. He describes how his wife developed cancer and died and implies that her death was Mr. Romney’s fault.
It turns out that Mr. Soptic’s wife died in 2006, five years after the plant closed. She had her own health insurance even after her husband became unemployed, but lost her coverage when she, too, lost her job.
Some Democrats have condemned the ad. Former Rep. Joe Sestak, Pennsylvania Democrat, called it “over the edge.” Lanny Davis, who was an adviser to President Clinton, said the ad is “disgusting.” Mika Brzezinski, a progressive co-host of the “Morning Joe” show on MSNBC, accused Obama campaign officials of “not telling the truth” about how much they knew about the commercial.
Robert Gibbs, an Obama campaign adviser, and deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter have said they knew nothing about the details of the woman’s illness and that they had nothing to do with the ad.
“You do know that we don’t have anything to do with Priorities USA. … I don’t know the facts of when Joe Soptic’s wife got sick or when she died,” Ms. Cutter said Wednesday.
Obama campaign officials have good reasons to deny any knowledge about the ad. One is that federal election law prohibits coordination between a candidate’s campaign and a third-party group such as Priorities USA.
Skeptics point out that Mr. Gibbs served as White House press secretary when Mr. Burton was his deputy for about two years in the first half of Mr. Obama’s term.
Ms. Cutter’s claim of ignorance has been met with even greater incredulity, given that she hosted a conference call for reporters May 14 that featured Mr. Soptic.
After Mr. Soptic told the media about his job loss and his wife’s diagnosis, Ms. Cutter said on the call, “Thank you, Joe. We really appreciate you sharing your experiences.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said he, too, was unaware of the details of the ad, and he tried to drum up outrage instead for a Romney campaign ad that criticizes Mr. Obama for weakening welfare-to-work rules.
Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a Romney supporter, said the claims of the president’s aides are not credible.
“First of all, they craft a despicable ad full of lies,” Mr. Sununu said on Fox News. “And then Stephanie Cutter and Robert Gibbs and Jay Carney lie to the press that they didn’t know anything that was in that ad.”
While the anti-Romney ad has drawn the most vociferous criticism to date in this campaign, the president described himself Thursday as the victim of an out-of-control campaign finance system.
“Over the next three months, you will see more negative ads, more money spent than you’ve ever seen in your life,” Mr. Obama said at a campaign event in Pueblo, Colo. “I mean, these super PACs, these guys are writing $10 million checks and giving them to Mr. Romney’s supporters. And basically, they all have just the same argument. They all say the same thing. They say the economy is bad and it’s Obama’s fault.”