A Conservative Answer to MoveOn

By Paul Kane and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 20, 2008

When a group of former White House aides formed a political advocacy group called Freedom's Watch last summer, its initial wave of ads featured battered Iraq war veterans pleading for support for President Bush's "surge" of troops.

Last month, the theme changed dramatically as the same group splashed dark, grainy images of illegal immigrants across television screens in northern Ohio, attacking a Democratic candidate's position on the divisive domestic issue.

Freedom's Watch has loudly announced that there will be no limits to what it might do. From its $15 million summer ad campaign defending the Iraq strategy to its six-figure effort in the House special election in Ohio, the group has put Democrats on notice that its agenda will go far beyond the conservative principles of its largest financial backers.

"We're a permanent political operation here in town. We're not going to be Johnny One Note," said Joe Eule, executive director of the expanding group, a nonprofit organization that many are describing as the MoveOn.org of the right.

The current Freedom's Watch staff of about 20 will be more than doubled in the coming months. In December, the group lured Ed Patru, the message chief for House Republicans, away from Capitol Hill to run its aggressive communications arm.

The group's offices, above the posh Caucus Room restaurant downtown, are being outfitted with a modern studio so the staff can send ads to TV and radio stations across the country on a moment's notice.

And Freedom's Watch will have money -- a lot of money. While initial reports suggested a budget of $200 million, people who have talked to the group in recent weeks say the figure is closer to $250 million, more than double the amount spent by the largest independent liberal groups in the 2004 election cycle.

"I'm happy to have any help I can get on the battlefield," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has badly trailed its counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in fundraising.

Independent groups have been a staple of American politics since election laws five years ago prohibited national parties from raising unlimited amounts of money from wealthy individuals, unions and corporations. In the last presidential campaign, the liberal groups America Votes and Media Fund spent about $100 million apiece on a get-out-the-vote effort and a TV attack campaign, respectively.

On the right, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth spent $22 million attacking the military credentials of the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). In 2005 and 2006, the conservative Progress for America spent tens of millions of dollars supporting the Supreme Court nominations of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Federal laws prevent independent groups from directly advocating or opposing specific candidates, so most of these groups tend to disappear as quickly as they arrive, folding when the election or the debate they are trying to influence concludes. MoveOn.org is an important exception. Founded a decade ago to urge Congress to censure President Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and "move on," the group grew into a leading liberal voice.

Enter Freedom's Watch.

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