By Jonathan Weisman and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Sen. Barack Obama's top fundraisers have asked his campaign donors to refrain from contributing to liberal independent political organizations in hopes of controlling the tone and message of the general-election campaign.
At a meeting in Indianapolis on May 2, members of the Democratic front-runner's finance committee made it clear Obama (Ill.) is worried that overtly negative advertising from outside organizations could undermine his themes of unity and hope.
"If people want to support our campaign, they should do it through our campaign," Obama spokesman Bill Burton said.
The meeting was only the most overt effort by Obama or Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, to freeze out "527" groups -- named after a provision in the tax code -- which are not allowed to openly support a candidate but have helped define recent elections through negative advertising.
The McCain campaign has been less organized than Obama's in its efforts to counter the groups, but the senator from Arizona has made clear his antipathy toward them -- without much effect.
"We will attack Obama viciously on all fair issues, whether they are national security, whether they are taxes or the economy," promised Chris LaCivita, one of the Republican strategists behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that attacked Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry in 2004. LaCivita added: "At the end of the day, every individual has a right to participate in the political process whether John McCain likes it or not. It's their constitutional right."
But so far, such groups have been remarkably silent, in part because of the signals Obama and McCain have sent to donors to steer clear.
"Obviously, McCain would prefer that people give money to him and the RNC and let us run our own campaign," said senior campaign adviser Charles R. Black Jr., referring to the Republican National Committee. "It's an issue of who is going to control your campaign."
To be sure, that has not prevented spokesmen for either candidate from accusing the other side of negative campaigning. Democrats say McCain shattered the truce when he said Obama is the candidate of Hamas. Republican surrogates have relentlessly tried to portray Obama as anti-Israel, just this week plucking one sentence out of an extended interview with the Atlantic Monthly to accuse him of calling Israel "a constant sore" that infects U.S. foreign policy.
Obama himself blurred the lines last weekend in Oregon, when he suggested that McCain's association with the Keating Five savings and loan scandal in the 1980s would be fair game in the general-election campaign. Republicans say Obama and the Democratic National Committee distorted McCain's words and record with ads showing him saying he would be all right with U.S. troops remaining in Iraq for 100 years and praising the economic record of President Bush.
Even as they go on the attack, both campaigns have tried hard to define which issues will be out of bounds for the other side. McCain campaign aides have pushed back hard on even the faintest hint that his age, 71, is fair game, and they have protested loudly when questions have been raised about his temperament.
Obama surrogates, for their part, have made clear Democrats will not accept anything that could be seen as race-baiting, crying foul at television images of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. References to Obama's middle name, Hussein, have drawn swift rebukes, as have unfounded suggestions of a Muslim past.
Obama's campaign has used Black's own words to set the parameters of debate, offering up his statement on March 14 that "What Senator McCain has said repeatedly is that these candidates cannot be held accountable for all the views of people who endorse them or people who befriend them."
"What we're seeing right now is a good basketball coach trying to pre-influence the referee, in this case the public through the media, on what should or should not be allowed," said John Weaver, a long-time McCain associate who is no longer with his campaign.
That message has chilled fundraising and has appeared to slow down some groups hoping to be major players in the general election. Tom Matzzie, a leader of the liberal group MoveOn.org, teamed recently with David Brock, once a conservative journalist who is now a liberal media critic, to form Progressive Media USA, pledging to raise $40 million and lead the attack on McCain. The group has yet to air an ad.
Conservative organizations say their donors have had no direct contact from the McCain campaign or its surrogates, but Republican operatives such as David Bosse and LaCivita, who have promised to hit Democrats hard, have so far been silent.
Instead, what operatives have seen is the firing of an Obama adviser, Samantha Power, for calling Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) "a monster," and the sacking of McCain's convention chief, Douglas M. Goodyear, after his past ties to the military junta in Burma came to light.
Scott Reed, who managed Republican candidate Robert J. Dole's campaign in 1996, said those signals have been extraordinary -- and for good reason. Personal attacks such as George H.W. Bush's tarring of Michael S. Dukakis in 1988 as a weak-kneed, unpatriotic liberal may work when times are good, but in an election year marked by economic recession, an unpopular war and an unpopular president, the candidate waging a frivolous campaign could face a backlash.
"If we Republicans think we're going to win by dusting off the Dukakis game plan in this environment, we're headed for big trouble," Weaver said. "Conversely, if Obama allows the debate to be about whatever [Democratic Party Chairman] Howard Dean and his minions want, they're headed for a much closer race than it should be."
The leaders of independent groups on both sides strongly disagree.
"If people think for one minute that Republicans need to wage this campaign with one hand tied behind their back, they're wrong," LaCivita said.
An officer of a Democratic-leaning group said it is up to organizations such as his to make sure people who will never vote for Obama hear messages to make McCain unacceptable as well.
"There are different parts of your brain that process positive and negative messages," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of running afoul of the complicated tax regulations that govern his group. "It's important not to leave negative associations off the table."
And they still may have their chance to weigh in. Black noted that no one had heard of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth until deep into the summer of 2004, when the group seemingly came out of nowhere.
"It's not in our makeup to stand there and get punched in the face and see our people get punched in the face and not respond," LaCivita warned. "It's only a matter of time."
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.