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A new ad airing today in the run-up to the April 3 Wisconsin primary replays footage of Rick Santorum saying he doesn’t “care what the unemployment rate’s going to be” and accuses him of voting against national right- to-work legislation.
It’s the latest attack spot sponsored by Restore Our Future, a so-called super-political action committee supporting Mitt Romney, aimed at derailing Santorum’s candidacy in Wisconsin by running more than 1,884 attack ads that the former Pennsylvania senator’s campaign says are misleading.
The commercial fits a pattern that has become a defining feature of the 2012 Republican presidential primary race. Since the contests began, Restore Our Future has spent $35 million on commercials attacking Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, the two candidates who have come closest to knocking Romney out of front-runner status, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money. The super-PAC has spent just $1.1 million promoting Romney, the data shows.
“They need to demonize and destroy, they need to slash and burn their opponents,” said David Johnson, a Republican strategist from Atlanta who worked on former Senator Bob Dole’s presidential bid in 1988 and is unaffiliated with any candidate this cycle. “That’s the only way Romney can win” because he has “no base of support,” he said.
In the 29 states holding primary competitions thus far, Romney has gotten a majority only three times: in his home state of Massachusetts; in Virginia, where Santorum and Gingrich weren’t on the ballot; and in Idaho. In Nevada, he got 50.1 percent support among caucus attendees.
In contrast to the super-PAC, Romney’s campaign has spent $11.8 million on broadcast ads, according to the CRP. The campaign has aired 12,817 spots, almost all of them positive, since January of 2011, according to CMAG.
The Romney commercial run most often is called “Moral Responsibility” and touts his commitment to be a strong financial steward for the nation. Another ad calls Romney a “man of steadiness,” citing his 42-year marriage to Ann Romney, his lifelong membership in the same church and his employment at Bain Capital LLC for 25 years.
Both the Romney campaign and Restore Our Future declined to comment through their spokeswomen, Andrea Saul and Brittany Gross.
John Brabender, a Santorum senior adviser, called the pro- Romney super-PAC ads “troubling,” particularly since they are aimed at Republicans. “Why in the world didn’t he spend his $35 million running ads against Obama instead of brutally attacking Republicans?” Brabender said.
The pro-Santorum political action committee, the Red, White and Blue Fund, today is hitting back with an ad in Wisconsin highlighting Romney’s “job-killing taxes and fees” as governor of Massachusetts, a $1 billion debt and his health-care plan that was a “blueprint for Obamacare.” That ad also leaves out the fact that Romney has said the law was a state-specific solution and that he would repeal Obama’s law if elected president.
In Wisconsin, and elsewhere, the campaign ads illustrate the role that super-PACs are playing in presidential elections after the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that independent third parties have a constitutional right to raise and spend as much as they want on political ads.
In the case of Santorum and Gingrich, wealthy donors to their friendly super-PACS, including the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future, have helped keep them in the race when their own fundraising faltered. Restore Our Future has helped Romney by ensuring neither of those candidacies gained momentum.
The only court stipulation is that the groups can’t coordinate their activities with a campaign. Candidates found a way around that hurdle by dispatching aides to operate them. Restore is run by former Romney advisers, including Charles R. Spies, who was Romney’s general counsel in the 2008 Republican primary. Its board of directors includes Carl Forti, who was political director four years ago.
“The way they function is essentially a parallel presidential campaign,” said Anthony Corrado, a political scientist at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “The notion that these PACs are independent is nothing more than a legal technicality.”
The pro-Romney group’s leading contributor last month was Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, according to Federal Election Commission records. Perry helped fund the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads that attacked Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s Vietnam War service in the 2004 race. Restore’s ads are being made by Larry McCarthy, who in 1988 produced the “Willie Horton” ad that linked a murderer to Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, a former Massachusetts governor, a smear even Republicans said was unfair.
Since Jan. 1 of last year, Restore has aired the same 16 negative ads 41,612 times in the major media markets of primary states from Michigan to Florida and Colorado, according to data provided by CMAG.
The committees backing Gingrich and Santorum ran 8,172 and 8,121 negative spots, respectively, according to data from CMAG.
Restore concentrated its firepower first on Gingrich in Florida after his Jan. 21 victory in South Carolina and then on Santorum in Ohio after his wins in Colorado and Minnesota on Feb. 7.
Another commercial sponsored by Restore accuses Santorum of voting with former Senator Hillary Clinton in favor of granting voting rights to violent convicted felons. The charge that Santorum supported voting rights for convicted felons was repeated 2,671 times before the Ohio March 6 primary.
Santorum confronted Romney about the ad in a debate in South Carolina on Jan. 16, saying it gave the impression that he allowed felons in prison to vote. Santorum said he supported voting rights only for people who had served their sentences.
He also pointed out that Massachusetts gives voting rights to felons who have served their time and that Romney never tried to change it. Romney said he was dealing with a Democratic legislature and opposed voting rights for felons who are released.
Like the felons ad, the latest spot running in Wisconsin about Santorum’s opposition to right-to-work laws doesn’t tell the full story.
Santorum has said that when he was a senator he voted to allow states to determine their own right-to-work laws, which prohibit agreements requiring employee union membership as a condition of employment. He’s also said that, as president, he would sign a national right-to-work law.
A CMAG analysis as of March 7 found one of the anti- Santorum ads, titled “Values,” has aired a total of 4,650 times, making it the fourth-most-run spot of the campaign season, including those in support of President Barack Obama.
That commercial criticizes Santorum for voting to raise the nation’s borrowing limit five times. Santorum did vote to raise the debt ceiling -- though he was joined by most of his Republican colleagues in granting the authority to a Republican president.
In March 2006, he was one of 52 Republicans to do so, including Senators Jon Kyl and Mitch McConnell, now the chamber’s top two Republicans, and former Senator Bill Frist, then majority leader. Only four Republicans opposed it.
In all, Restore ran 3,313 ads in the 10 days before Ohio’s March 6 vote, compared to 722 by the pro-Santorum PAC. Santorum lost narrowly to Romney, by four-fifths of a percentage point.
“He did the same thing in Michigan and Mississippi and every place,” said Brabender. “In Gingrich’s case, he did basically knock him out of the race.”
After his South Carolina win, Gingrich went into Florida’s Jan. 31 race in a dead heat with Romney, according to a Quinnipiac University (78104MF) poll conducted Jan. 19 to 23. In the final days before the primary, Restore ran five different ads in the state’s major media markets, every one of them attacking Gingrich and rated as negative by Kantar.
“Overnight a storm rained dollars on the television,” said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political scientist. “They had a big impact,” said MacManus, who also serves as a Tampa television station analyst.
“Newt has more baggage than the airlines,” one of the ads said, citing consulting fees he earned from government-backed mortgage lender Freddie Mac. It also claims Gingrich joined with top House Democrat, Nancy Pelosi, to grant $60 million to a United Nations program supporting China’s “brutal one-child policy.”
China’s one-child policy refers to the country’s efforts to limit population growth to one child per couple and human rights advocates say it has led to forced sterilizations and abortions.
PolitiFact Florida, a project by the Tampa Bay Times, rated the claim “pants on fire,” or completely inaccurate. While Gingrich did co-sponsor a resolution with Pelosi to propose funds for the UN Population Fund, the bill prohibited using any of it for involuntary sterilization or abortion.
Romney won 46 percent to Gingrich’s 32 percent, walking away with all 50 of Florida’s delegates. Gingrich picked up no more than 13 percent of the vote in the next four contests.
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