The sound of laughter at a media dinner as a tuxedo-clad President Bush makes light of the search for Iraqi weapons gives way to the plaintive voice of Brooke Campbell describing what happened 36 days later.
"My brother died in Baghdad on April 29th," she says. "I watched President Bush make a joke, looking around for weapons of mass destruction. My brother died looking for weapons of mass destruction."
The intensity of the Georgia woman's lament, in a television ad being financed by MoveOn PAC, is matched by that of Ashley Faulkner, whose mother was killed in the 2001 World Trade Center attack.
"He's the most powerful man in the world, and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe," the Ohio teenager says in an ad from the Progress for America Voter Fund. The spot shows a still photo of a choked-up president hugging her.
With tens of millions of dollars to spend and messages that often pack a greater emotional punch than those of Bush and John F. Kerry, independent groups are blitzing the airwaves in the presidential campaign's final stretch. The assembled groups are saying things that the candidates dare not say, connecting conspiratorial dots, using more disturbing images and indulging in no-holds-barred ridicule. In a venue dominated by Democrats for much of the year, Republicans are almost catching up, yielding a cacophony of themes tailored to different hot-button issues, different constituencies, different states and different kinds of fear.
On the pro-Bush side, those making or funding independent ads include Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, Club for Growth, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association. The organizations supporting Kerry include the Media Fund, the United Auto Workers, Planned Parenthood, the League of Conservation Voters and the New Democrat Network, which just began running English and Spanish spots aimed at Hispanic voters.
The spending levels, in some cases, are eye-popping. Progress for America, for instance, is devoting $15 million just to airing the Faulkner ad.
The conservative group is one of many that have been eroding what was once a lopsided advantage for the Democrats in these "527" organizations, named after the section of the tax code that covers them. According to recent estimates, liberal groups have raised more than $140 million, compared with about $75 million for conservative groups. They are charging through a regulatory door opened by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.
"A lot of people don't pay any attention to the disclosure at the end about who authorized it," said William Benoit, a University of Missouri communications professor. "Even if they do notice it's not a candidate ad, a lot of people probably think they're colluding with the candidates."
While Bush and Kerry have been wary of seeming to exploit the Sept. 11 attacks or the Iraq war, the 527 groups have no hesitation about tugging on heartstrings. Brian McCabe, president of the Progress for America fund, which has raised $25 million, said that he contacted the Faulkner family after seeing the hugging photo on the Internet and that 16-year-old Ashley made the decision to participate.
"It's such an emotional story and so represents what people thought about President Bush after 9/11, that he was able to comfort a nation," McCabe said. It is also a far cry from an earlier Progress ad that attacked Kerry by using pictures of Osama bin Laden, hijacker Mohamed Atta, Russian hostage-takers, the Madrid bombings and the World Trade Center.
Campbell, who plans to follow Vice President Cheney to campaign stops beginning today, said she felt compelled to make the ad because her late brother, Ryan, had told her that he felt "lied to about the invasion of Iraq" -- and because she was angry that "Bush had not apologized for making a mistake." The liberal MoveOn PAC has also run ads on the president haltingly telling reporters he could not remember a mistake he had made, and on Pat Robertson saying Bush had told him there would be no casualties in Iraq.
As the Swift boat group showed in July, when its first ad aired in just three states, it does not take a major buy to attract substantial attention. But the group has spent $6 million in the past two months and recently joined forces with anti-Kerry Vietnam POWs. "They're the men who spent years in North Vietnamese prison camps, tortured for refusing to confess what John Kerry accused them of -- being war criminals," a new ad says. Kerry's 1971 testimony did not accuse specific people, and he said he was describing atrocities alleged by other veterans.
Some groups have spawned opposing groups, such as Texans for Truth, which is running an ad about National Guard members forced to remain in Iraq: "President Bush didn't complete his service to the National Guard. . . . People are literally dying for the lack of integrity."
Independent groups "have run some of the most hard-hitting and misleading ads, because they're not on the ballot," said Brown University professor Darrell West. "The candidates have to exercise some restraint. The groups have almost no accountability, so they can say whatever they want."
The liberal Media Fund, which has raised $60 million, is now expanding from three to eight states with an ad that charges "Bush and the Saudis are too close for comfort." Fund spokeswoman Sarah Leonard said a poll of voters in St. Louis, where the commercial first aired, found a nine-percentage-point swing toward Kerry among those who had seen it.
Some ads rely on humor: A Club for Growth spot illustrates Kerry's supposed flip-flopping by showing a groom dumping his bride to passionately embrace her best friend.
Others are targeted toward particular constituencies -- which, in a tight race, could make a difference. "John Kerry's not a hunter -- he just plays one on TV," says NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox says in a spot showing a rifle-toting Kerry in camouflage -- giving way to a picture of a French poodle in a Kerry sweater.
Planned Parenthood, which has endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time, has featured actress Helen Hunt in one ad. Another ad says: "Bush has even tried to restrict access to contraception and cut family-planning programs."
A group called MOB, or Mothers Opposing Bush, is also using a famous face. "Sopranos" star Edie Falco asks in an ad: "Mothers always put their children first. What about you, Mr. Bush?"
Same-sex marriage is the theme in three commercials by the group Public Interest, airing on MTV, to motivate young people to vote. One of the public service announcements shows close-up piercings of various body parts, asking: "Who decides where a ring should go?"
Some spots air only in certain battleground states. The Media Fund has run a series of ads in Ohio, with ordinary people talking about the state's loss of 230,000 jobs during Bush's term. The New Democrat Network is tailoring commercials to nine states, with such lines as "one in seven Colorado children with no health insurance." The League of Conservation Voters is spending $3 million on spots in Nevada, where the administration has decided to locate a nuclear waste dump, questioning whether Bush was "playing politics" with the Yucca Mountain site.
Political researcher Brian Faler contributed to this report.