Romney shot back: “I already said at our last debate that anything that’s false in PAC ads, whether they are supportive of me or supportive of you, should be taken off the air and fixed. I’ve already said that.”
Romney added: “Now I can’t call these people and direct them to do that, as you know, because that would violate federal law, is that correct?”
“Absolutely,” Gingrich replied.
Romney added that the pro-Gingrich attacks on his Bain career, which includes a disputed 29-minute Internet film, are “one of the biggest hoaxes since Bigfoot.”
Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), who is banking heavily on a good showing in South Carolina, also berated Romney for a misleading ad from Restore Our Future, which suggested that Santorum voted to allow felons to cast votes from prison. An official with Restore Our Future declined to comment.
Efforts to limit impact
As they consume the debate in the presidential primaries, super PACs and other independent groups are also becoming an issue in some big congressional races. In Massachusetts, Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren have agreed to hold a meeting this week between their campaigns on the prospect of somehow discouraging interest groups from participating in the race.
Warren has called for an “enforceable agreement” between the two candidates, though it is unclear what the candidates could do to enforce such an agreement. Legally, candidates are prohibited from directing advertising that’s run by outside groups, including how much should run and when.
In 2008, Barack Obama successfully discouraged outside groups from spending money on his behalf. He has abandoned that effort this year, however, in light of massive fundraising by the new super PACs and other outside groups friendly to Republicans.
One of the best-known super PACs is actually a bit of performance art: Television host Stephen Colbert — represented by Potter — formed a super PAC, Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, as a sort of highbrow protest against freewheeling campaign finance laws.
Advocates of stronger campaign finance restrictions say the explosion of super PACs underscores the need for greater limits, perhaps even through a constitutional amendment. Spending limits were first put in place after Watergate-era fundraising scandals.
But many Republicans, including Romney, argue that candidates should be able to directly raise and spend unlimited amounts of money themselves. Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich aide who now serves as a senior adviser to Winning Our Future, said super PACs like his own “are an abomination.”
“Why wouldn’t we allow candidates to raise all the money they want themselves and put their names on the ads?” Tyler said. “This shell game we’re playing is ridiculous.”
Staff writer T.W. Farnam and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.