Republican-aligned groups are hitting President Barack Obama with almost $2 million in attack ads and the response so far has been silence.
The reason: Democratic groups formed to counter those charges don’t have the money to do it.
“To most donors, threat of attacks on the president has been only theoretical,” said Bill Burton, a co-founder and spokesman for Priorities USA Action, a so-called super political action committee created to defend the president’s re-election campaign. “This last week it became very real.”
The inaction is unsettling Democratic activists who saw their party’s 2004 nominee, John Kerry, hobbled by a March ad campaign aired by former President George W. Bush’s re-election team the moment it became clear the Massachusetts senator would become his general election challenger.
“The campaign is entering a different phase,” said Steve Elmendorf, Kerry’s former deputy campaign manager. “What we learned is ‘define your opponent before he has a chance to define himself.’”
It’s a missed opportunity for Democrats to define Romney -- and protect Obama -- as the contest becomes a two-man race. Romney’s strongest primary challenger, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, ended his campaign on April 10. On the same day, the Republican-founded Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit group created with the guidance of Karl Rove, Bush’s former top political strategist, began a $1.7 million ad campaign criticizing the president’s energy policies.
‘Race is On’
“You start when they start,” said Joe Trippi, who served as campaign manager to former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic primary bid. “The race is on and it’s hopefully equal resources,” said Trippi. “You want to have a spending advantage or at least parity.”
The president holds a financial advantage over Romney, ending the month of February with 12 times the cash on hand as Romney, $85 million to Romney’s $7.3 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based group that tracks election spending.
Yet the hardest-hitting television ads will be crafted by outside groups run by advisers closely aligned with the campaigns. In this sphere, Obama and his allies are behind.
Crossroads, which has two arms, plans to spend $250 million to influence the presidential and congressional races, it announced last year. One entity, American Crossroads, has raised $27 million, according to Federal Election Commission disclosure reports. The other, Crossroads GPS, takes unlimited donations and doesn’t reveal its contributors.
Romney has another friendly super-PAC, Restore Our Future, which was founded by his former aides. It raised nearly $43 million by the end of February, and spent $40 million on ads, 91 percent of which were attacks on Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich during the primary contests.
In contrast, Priorities USA set a goal of raising $100 million to defend the president during the general election. According to FEC reports, Priorities USA Action has raised just $6.5 million. When combined with Priorities USA, a partner group that doesn’t disclose donors, the total contributed to the effort was about $10 million by the end of February, according to Burton.
Despite concerns among some Democrats, the Obama campaign isn’t expediting its timeline for a full-fledged ad war in response to Romney allies pushing up their previously planned May start, said Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the campaign.
“We had always prepared for special interests to spend a half billion dollars in an attempt to defeat the president,” he said. “We’re asking our supporters to invest now to allow us to build the largest grassroots campaign in history.”
On April 2, the Obama campaign released its first round of ads targeting Romney, tying the former Bain Capital LLC private equity executive to oil companies and painting him as hostile to the president’s efforts to produce more renewable energy and raise auto mileage standards.
The buy in such swing states as Colorado and Ohio was a response to a $3.6 million ad campaign funded by the U.S. oil industry -- and is valued at about $400,000 less than what Crossroads is spending on its first strike against Obama. Democrats also released a two-minute Internet video calling Romney a “severely conservative nominee.”
Obama has benefited from a Republican primary process that has featured multimillion-dollar ad campaigns aimed at tarnishing Romney’s image. “When your opponents are beating each other up, don’t get in the way,” said Trippi.
Santorum Attacks Ads
The Santorum-aligned Red, White and Blue Fund, a super-PAC formed by his supporters, ran 9,374 negative ads on Romney during the campaign, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising. As of April 11, it had spent $687,307 in spots targeting Romney, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The president now is in a position similar to that of Bush in 2004. He’s an incumbent whose approval ratings are split, with 48 percent approving of his job performance and 47 percent disapproving of it, making him vulnerable to a challenger who will use the next few weeks to introduce himself to the broader American electorate.
“In a lot of elections, the campaign advertising doesn’t matter,” said Ken Goldstein, president of CMAG. “When you’re in field goal distance, it matters.”
It was during this period that the Bush campaign unloaded a “very aggressive” advertising effort, said Mark McKinnon, one of Bush’s longtime ad consultants. “The Obama campaign is at a disadvantage by letting Romney and the Republican Party gather strength,” said Terry Nelson, political director of the Bush 2004 campaign.
In 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain, the Arizona senator, stepped back for a couple of months after his primary essentially ended to raise money and regroup before engaging Obama in the general election, Nelson said. “That’s not going to be the case this time,” he added.
-- Editors: Jeanne Cummings, Michael Shepard
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