The McCain campaign says it's the target of a high-stakes, big-money "dirty trick" at the most crucial juncture of the campaign. The Bush camp insists it's not responsible for the ad.
The person who is taking responsibility for the ad is a Texas businessman named Sam Wyly. Wyly and his brother, Charles, have given over $210,000 to various Bush campaigns. Charles Wyly is a member of the Bush "Pioneers," an elite fund-raising SWAT team whose members have each brought in at least $100,000 for the governor.
Wyly's disclosure brought an end to a two-day campaign mystery. McCain has been furiously protesting the anonymous attacks as an attempt to "hijack" the campaign. Links between Wyly and the ads were beginning to emerge, but it isn't known whether he had planned to disclose his role, or whether he was forced into it.
Either way, a $2 million ad dump the week before the most important day of the primary season is no trivial matter. Especially since the Bush campaign has already spent some $50 million and has started to find that many donors wells were tapped dry.
The placement of the ads, experts say, shows some political sophistication.
Environmental issues don't often command a high profile in GOP primaries. That leads several political consultants to suggest that the ads were intended to undermine McCain's support among Democrats and independents in the big three Super Tuesday states in a way that Republican voters wouldn't mind. "Green" matters are not major holdings in either candidate's rhetorical portfolios.
Neither Bush nor McCain has earned especially high marks on environmental issues. Environmental groups, led by the Sierra Club, say the Republicans for Clean Air ad is misleading in its portrait of Bush's record. The ad says, "John McCain voted against solar and renewable energy - that means more use of coal-burning plants that pollute our air. Republicans care about clear air. So does Governor Bush. Bush clean-air laws will reduce air pollution." It concludes: Governor Bush: Leading so each day dawns brighter."
Certainly, the average viewer can be excused for thinking this is just a regular Bush campaign spot.
However, this is a so-called "independent expenditure" ad. And it is illegal for campaigns and groups making independent expenditures to coordinate their efforts. In the real world, proving such coordination has proven next to impossible for the Federal Election Commission. Still, any links between Bush campaign officials and Republicans for Clean Air would be trouble.
Groups that run independent ads often do so under cloaks of anonymit, claiming federal laws allow them to withhold information about their personnel and finances unless they explicitly urge the election of a specific candidate for office. Wyly, theoretically, could have kept his role in Republicans for Clean Air a secret for a long time.
In virtually all such independent expenditure advertising campaigns, the election is long over before the legal issues are addressed. That, combined with their capacity to enable anonymous attacks, helps explain why these so-called "issue ads" have become common ammo in modern elections.
The mother of all independent, anonymous attack ads was the Willie Horton ad used against Michael Dukakis when he opposed Vice President Bush in 1988. There have always been deep suspicions that the Bush campaign orchestrated the Horton ad, but no conclusive proof has ever emerged.
Interestingly, the company that bought and arranged the air time for the Republicans for Clean Air ad is Multi-Media Services, directed by GOP consultant Tony Fabrizio. Fabrizio was also one of the architects of the Willie Horton ad, as he admitted on August 3, 1990, in an affidavit given for the FEC's investigation into the case.
In addition, Fabrizio has worked for New York Gov. George Pataki, who is running the Bush campaign in New York State. He also placed "independent" ads attacking Steve Forbes earlier in the primary season, according to the McCain campaign.
Fabrizio did not return calls from CBS News Friday.
The McCain campaign was eager to expose other possible connections between Bush officials and Republicans for Clean Air.
Multi-Media Services (the Fabrizio company) listed a Herndon, Va., post office box belonging to Lydia Meuret as the contact for Republicans for Clean Air. The group shares that post office box with another GOP organization called American Dream Political Action Committee. Meuret is also the treasurer of that group, which encourages Latino participation in Republican campaigns.
The head of American Dream PAC is Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, a close Bush backer. Bonilla's office says it knows nothing about Republicans for Clean Air.
Meuret's predecessor at American Dream was Jeb Hensarling, a long-time aide to another Bush backer, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. Interestingly, Hensarling's sister now works for Rep. Bonilla.
Hensarling also was in the consulting business with James B. Francis Jr., who has been described in newspaper stories as the "coordinator" and "chairman" of the Pioneers.
And The Washington Post reported that Hensarling has worked as a consultant for none other than Sam Wyly.
This tangled web of names and post office boxes tied to Republicans for Clean Air illustrates why the drivers in these hit-and-run political attacks are rarely identified. Even though the "who paid for it" mystery is solved in this case, the hunt for direct ties between Wyly and the Bush campaign will continue
Wyly issued a statement Friday saying, "Air pollution threatens the health of our children." The Sierra Club quickly countered by releasing a list of politicians opposed to clean-air legislation who Wyly has supported in the past. The point being that maybe, just maybe, Wyly's interest in the environment is not quite so genuine or altruistic.
The moral of the story for consumers of political advertising should be fairly simple: When you hear about a group with a nonsensical name like Republicans for Clean Air, beware.