Independent Group to Air TV Ads Echoing Clinton Attacks on Obama

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 21, 2008

As Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton launches fresh attacks on Sen. Barack Obama after a string of electoral defeats, several of her major financial backers have formed an independent group to air television advertisements echoing her message that she is more qualified than Obama to fix the economy.

In the group's first ad, the television image shows a shuttered factory and a home in foreclosure, and a voiceover says: "If speeches could create jobs, we wouldn't be facing a recession." The criticism of "speeches" closely mirrors a line of attack Clinton has used against Obama.

The decision to launch the independent group, known as a "527" because of its tax code designation, coincides with an increasingly aggressive approach being taken by Clinton in advance of March 4 contests in Ohio and Texas that could determine the Democratic nominee. The Obama campaign compared the effort to the "Swift boat" ads that helped sink Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential bid.

Supporters of the group, called the American Leadership Project, said yesterday that they decided to undertake the effort late last month, when Clinton was forced to lend her campaign $5 million to try to minimize Obama's large fundraising advantage. Unlike a political campaign, the group can accept as much as money as supporters want to give.

Campaign finance reports filed yesterday showed that Obama outdid Clinton in fundraising last month, collecting $36 million. Clinton's campaign said she will report raising $13.9 million. And while Clinton finance officials said yesterday that this month has been the campaign's strongest month for fundraising, there are signs that she continues to lag behind Obama. While Clinton aides reported raising $1 million a day during the first half of the month, an Obama adviser described one recent day that yielded $2.4 million. And in an e-mail Clinton sent to supporters yesterday, she said she was outspent 4 to 1 on television ads in Wisconsin, where she lost decisively on Tuesday.

Though the independent ads could help bring greater parity on television for the Clinton campaign in Texas and Ohio, where they are set to air, they may carry a steep price for the entity behind them. Such a group faces tight federal restrictions on how it can operate and what it can say in advertising. A 527 cannot have as its primary purpose the election of a candidate, and the law limits it to running ads about issues, not ones that plainly advocate for Clinton's election or defeat. The group cannot have any contact with the Clinton campaign. Violations could subject organizers and donors to stiff fines.

Campaign finance reform experts said there are troubling aspects in the American Leadership Project's mission. The group is not part of an established effort to exert political influence in Washington, and it first officially surfaced in filings with the Internal Revenue Service on Feb. 15. It is advertising only in states where Clinton faces competitive primary contests. And the content of its first ad strongly hints that its purpose is to support her candidacy and oppose Obama's.

"This pop-up 527 group clearly has been created to spend unlimited soft money to influence the presidential election," said Fred Wertheimer, of the group Democracy 21, after reviewing the ad. "As far as the duck test goes: It looks like a campaign ad; it sounds like a campaign ad; it's a campaign ad."

Jason Kinney, a California political strategist who helped form the group, said its organizers recognized that they are wading into "a new and developing area of the law, but we've taken every step and are as confident as we can be that we are adhering to all of the regulations."

The Obama campaign released a memo yesterday saying that the group has already crossed those lines. "Here we have a committee that springs up on the eve of an election, promotes a specific candidate, and has no history or apparent purpose of lobbying specific issues outside the benefit to the candidate of these communications," the memo states. "Its 'major purpose' is no mystery."

The undertaking could also prove embarrassing. One of the group's founders, New York political strategist Paul Rivera, is a veteran of the Clinton White House and Kerry's presidential campaign. But a year ago, he reached out to Obama's campaign for consulting work. In a Feb. 23, 2007, memo that he sent to the campaign, Rivera described Clinton's candidacy as "doing the same, old traditional politics," and he added that "Senator Obama has a potent change message and is clearly a superior political talent."

Rivera confirmed yesterday that the memo was his, but he declined to comment on it. Kinney said all he knew about Rivera was that "he cares about the same issues we care about." He would not identify any of the group's financial patrons.

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