One commercial accuses the president of worsening the deficit and says, “It’s time to take away Obama’s blank check.” Another attacks Republican tax and Medicare policies, saying, “We can’t rebuild America if they tear down the middle class.”

So begins the shadow campaign of 2012, in which a new breed of “super PACs” and other independent groups are poised to spend more money than ever to sway federal elections.

The first major ads look as if they came from a regular campaign. But they were produced and aired by groups independent of Obama and his GOP rivals.

The rise of these independent groups, which can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and other wealthy donors and spend it to help their favored candidates, could end up defining the 2012 campaign.

But some of the groups could also pose a threat to established campaigns, which may find it difficult to stop them from wandering off message or committing strategic blunders. One rogue super PAC in Southern California has upended a Republican congressional campaign by producing a cru de video depicting the female Democratic candidate as a stripper giving tax money to gang members.

Dozens of super PACs and nonprofit groups have sprung up over the past year in response to court decisions that have tossed out many of the old rules governing federal elections, including a century-old ban on political spending by corporations.

As a result, new independent groups played a crucial role in the 2010 midterm elections and are expected to be even more dominant in 2012. The Federal Election Commission bolstered their clout further last week by allowing political candidates to help raise money for super PACs, though they remain barred from coordinating campaign strategies.

The Campaign Finance Institute, which tracks money in politics, calculated in a recent study that independent groups spent nearly $300 million in the 2010 elections, more than double the amount spent in 2008. Michael Malbin, the group’s executive director, said the loosened climate is reminiscent of the Watergate era, which led to a series of wide-ranging overhauls.

“If you want to know what the 2012 campaign is going to look like, you have to look back 40 years — to 1972,” Malbin said. “These groups are functioning almost the way party groups used to function.”

The first major ad buy came a week ago by Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit advocacy group founded with the support of GOP operative Karl Rove. The group began a $5 million campaign of television and radio ads in 10 states tied to the ongoing debate about the federal debt ceiling.

“Fourteen million out of work,” a narrator says. “America drowning in debt. It’s time to take away Obama’s blank check.”

Crossroads GPS President Steven Law said that although the ad “might have some resonance into next year,” it is aimed primarily at influencing the debt-limit debate. “We’re definitely working to shape how the president is perceived, because how he is perceived will have a huge impact on how this issue is resolved,” he said.

GPS and its sister group, the American Crossroads super PAC, plan to spend $120 million or more in the 2012 election cycle. Neither organization has fundraising limits, but only the super PAC must disclose its donors.

The campaign prompted an immediate response from Priorities USA Action, a new pro-Obama super PAC that is spending about $750,000 in five of the states targeted by Crossroads. The group and its nonprofit parent raised $4 million to $5 million in the second quarter.

The Priorities USA ad calls the Crossroads commercial “politics at its worst” and bashes Republicans for wanting to “essentially end Medicare” and give tax breaks to oil companies and the wealthy.

“We are meant to be a countervailing force to what Karl Rove is doing,” said Bill Burton, a Priorities USA spokesman and former White House aide. “It’s a place where right-wing Republicans engage in battle, and the question is whether the other side has an effective response.”

But it is not clear whether the agendas of independent groups will always mesh with those of the candidates, who work carefully to craft their own messages. Obama discouraged the formation of outside groups in 2008 for that reason, but he has signaled that he will not stand in the way this time around.

“Neither the president nor his campaign staff or aides will fundraise for super PACs,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. “Our campaign will continue to lead the way when it comes to transparency and reform.”

Another group, Restore Our
Future PAC, has raised about $10 million to help Republican hopeful Mitt Romney. A Romney spokeswoman declined to comment on the super PAC.

The pitfalls posed by outside groups can be seen in California’s 36th Congressional District, where Democrat Janice Hahn and Republican Craig Huey are vying to replace retired Rep. Jane Harman (D) in a July 12 special election.

The race was plunged into chaos last month when a newly formed super PAC, Turn Right USA, produced an Internet-only advertisement targeting Hahn that featured foul-mouthed rappers and a stripper gyrating on a pole. The spot was meant to criticize a program backed by Hahn to help former gang members.

The Hahn campaign has seized on the incident in fundraising pleas and alleges possible coordination between Huey’s campaign and the super PAC. Huey has said that he had no knowledge of the ad or the group behind it.

“It was a huge distraction, and it continues to be a distraction,” said Jimmy Camp, Huey’s campaign manager. “We can’t talk about anything now without them accusing us of being tied to this ugly thing, this racist, sexist video.”

Lisa Rosenberg, a Sunlight Foundation consultant who monitors campaign finance issues, said, “These shadow organizations are basically going to be running the campaigns.”

“I really think the candidates and the parties ought to be very concerned,” Rosenberg said. “Either they are going to completely lose control of their campaigns if these groups are truly independent, or they’ll be breaking the law by being in cahoots with them.”


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