To hear the Republican presidential candidates tell it, they’ve already lost control of their campaigns to outsiders.

Mitt Romney and other hopefuls vying for the GOP nomination are complaining in unison about the dominant role being played by super PACs, new independent groups that are shifting the landscape of the 2012 elections with a torrent of negative and often inaccurate attack ads.

Then again, this could all be so much bluster. Even as they complain about super PAC ads, the candidates seem happy to repeat the attacks that the ads contain — aiming to reap the political benefits from groups with no direct accountability to the public.

“We all would like to have super PACs disappear, to tell you the truth,” Romney said at a debate Monday night in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

But then he embraced them Tuesday morning: “It’s not that I don’t support super PACs. We raise money for super PACs. We encourage super PACs. Each candidate has done that.”

The waffling underscores the awkward relationship between the groups and Romney, Newt Gingrich and other GOP candidates, who are simultaneously distancing themselves from, and taking advantage of, the super PACs without running afoul of campaign finance rules. The groups, which have emerged from court rulings dismantling key campaign finance restrictions, are allowed to back candidates with no limits on how much money they can raise or spend.

All of the major presidential candidates have a super PAC dedicated to their cause, funded heavily by billionaire financiers, hedge fund managers and corporate tycoons writing six- and
seven-figure checks. The groups are estimated to be outspending regular campaigns in South Carolina by a 2-to-1 ratio.

Effect in primaries

An Associated Press analysis released Tuesday found that super PAC ads have affected primary results more than other forms of campaigning, including personal appearances by candidates. Super PACs have reported $23.8 million in primary spending to the Federal Election Commission as of Tuesday, with $8.8 million of that coming from groups backing Romney.

“We’re in an unprecedented situation where these super PACs, taking unlimited money, have clearly affected the direction of the Republican primary, and people are struggling with how to respond,” said attorney Trevor Potter of the Campaign Legal Center, who served as general counsel for GOP presidential candidate John McCain. “People understand they have the potential to determine who is president.”

Under federal rules, candidates aren’t allowed to directly coordinate with super PACs — which are supposed to be independent — but the candidatescan raise money for the groups, share donors and even send pointed messages to them through the media.

Gingrich vs. Romney

Thus Gingrich has repeatedly criticized the Winning Our Future super PAC for inaccuracies in its attacks on Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital while echoing some of the attacks himself on the campaign trail. Winning Our Future is run by former Gingrich confidants and was the recipient of a $5 million gift from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a longtime financial backer of the former House speaker.

Restore Our Future — a super PAC run and funded by close Romney allies — responded with its own ads attacking Gingrich, leading to a pointed exchange in Myrtle Beach between the two candidates.

Gingrich derided Romney’s claim that he had no influence over Restore Our Future, saying it “makes you wonder how much influence he’d have if he were president.”

Romney shot back: “I already said at our last debate that anything that’s false in PAC ads, whether they are supportive of me or supportive of you, should be taken off the air and fixed. I’ve already said that.”

Romney added: “Now I can’t call these people and direct them to do that, as you know, because that would violate federal law, is that correct?”

“Absolutely,” Gingrich replied.

Romney added that the pro-Gingrich attacks on his Bain career, which includes a disputed 29-minute Internet film, are “one of the biggest hoaxes since Bigfoot.”

Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), who is banking heavily on a good showing in South Carolina, also berated Romney for a misleading ad from Restore Our Future, which suggested that Santorum voted to allow felons to cast votes from prison. An official with Restore Our Future declined to comment.

Efforts to limit impact

As they consume the debate in the presidential primaries, super PACs and other independent groups are also becoming an issue in some big congressional races. In Massachusetts, Republican Sen. Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren have agreed to hold a meeting this week between their campaigns on the prospect of somehow discouraging interest groups from participating in the race.

Warren has called for an “enforceable agreement” between the two candidates, though it is unclear what the candidates could do to enforce such an agreement. Legally, candidates are prohibited from directing advertising that’s run by outside groups, including how much should run and when.

In 2008, Barack Obama successfully discouraged outside groups from spending money on his behalf. He has abandoned that effort this year, however, in light of massive fundraising by the new super PACs and other outside groups friendly to Republicans.

One of the best-known super PACs is actually a bit of performance art: Television host Stephen Colbert — represented by Potter — formed a super PAC, Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, as a sort of highbrow protest against freewheeling campaign finance laws.

Advocates of stronger campaign finance restrictions say the explosion of super PACs underscores the need for greater limits, perhaps even through a constitutional amendment. Spending limits were first put in place after Watergate-era fundraising scandals.

But many Republicans, including Romney, argue that candidates should be able to directly raise and spend unlimited amounts of money themselves. Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich aide who now serves as a senior adviser to Winning Our Future, said super PACs like his own “are an abomination.”

“Why wouldn’t we allow candidates to raise all the money they want themselves and put their names on the ads?” Tyler said. “This shell game we’re playing is ridiculous.”

Staff writer T.W. Farnam and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.