"For those who believe in peace through strength, the cavalry is coming," said former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, who is a founding board member of the group.
The big ad buy, funded by high-profile Republicans who were aides and supporters of President Bush, reflects a furious public relations battle that will unfold as Congress debates the crucial progress report by Gen. David Petraeus, which is due Sept. 15.
“There was a large vacuum on the conservative side,” said Bradley A. Blakeman, who is president and chief executive officer of Freedom’s Watch. “People decided that the time has come to fight back. This is a grass-roots campaign aimed at ensuring that Congress continues to fully fund the troops with the ultimate goal of victory in the war on terror.”
The opening ad, by Jamestown Associates of New Jersey, shows a military veteran saying: “Congress was right to vote to fight terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. I re-enlisted after Sept. 11 because I don’t want my sons to see what I saw. I want them to be free and safe. I know what I lost. I also know that if we pull out now, everything I’ve given and the sacrifices will mean nothing. They attacked us, and they will again. They won’t stop in Iraq. We are winning on the ground and making real progress. It’s no time to quit. It’s no time for politics.”
Organizers said the ads will run on Fox News Channel, CNN and elsewhere, with radio versions airing nationally during the conservative talk shows of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.
Americans Against Escalation in Iraq – formed by the Service Employees International Union, MoveOn.org Political Action, the Center for American Progress Action Fund and other liberal and progressive organizations – struck back immediately with a statement denouncing Freedom’s Watch as a “White House P.R. front group” and an “attack group.”
The two groups will be squaring off for months to come. Americans Against Escalation in Iraq says on its website: “Many of the organizations coming together to lead Americans Against Escalation in Iraq are those that successfully mounted a national campaign in 2005 to defeat President Bush's effort to privatize Social Security. Using that same campaign model, these organizations are joining with more traditional anti-war forces, veterans and students to mount this campaign because the stakes are so high and because the future of a generation of Americans is on the line.”
Freedom's Watch aims to do for the GOP what the MoveOn political action organizations have done for Democrats. Blakeman, who was a member the White House senior staff in Bush’s first term, said Freedom’s Watch is designed as “a never-ending campaign – a stable, credible voice of reason on generational issues that won’t rise and fall with election cycles.”
The board consists of Blakeman; Fleischer; Mel Sembler, a Florida Republican who was Bush’s ambassador to Italy; William P. Weidner, president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Sands Corp.; and Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
The donors include Sembler; Anthony Gioia, a Buffalo businessman who was Bush’s ambassador to Malta; Kevin Moley, who was Bush’s ambassador to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva; Howard Leach, a former Republican National Committee finance chairman who was Bush’s ambassador to France; Dr. John Templeton of Pennsylvania, chairman and president of the John Templeton Foundation; Ed Snider, chairman of Comcast Spctacor, the huge Philadelphia sports and entertainment firm; Sheldon Adelson, chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and ranked by Forbes magazine as the third-wealthiest American; and Richard Fox, who is chairman of the Jewish Policy Center and was Pennsylvania State Chairman of the Reagan/Bush campaign in 1980.
Blakeman said the ads are meant to “communicate to the American people, to Congress and to the world that there’s another side to the story, and that America should not and must not surrender, because appeasement doesn’t work.”
“There’s a significant voice out there that believes that, but it wasn’t breaking through organizationally or in the media,” he said.
Details of the new group's ad buy reveal a sophisticated plan for pressuring vulnerable members of Congress to stick with the administration.
Opponents of the war say they have uncovered Freedom’s Watch buys in 33 television markets, from Albuquerque, N.M., to Bangor, Maine, to Little Rock, Ark. In many cases, according to the opponents’ tally, the advertisements will air in the districts or home states of Republican incumbents who have wavered in their support for the administration on Iraq. The two biggest expenditures appeared to be in Philadelphia and Washington. There are smaller ad buys in places like Bend, Ore. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who faces a tough race, was among the first GOP senators to call for an end to the war.
Blakeman would not confirm the buys, calling the list “propaganda by our enemies."
The tally found that the group will air ads in states like Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has become a top Democratic target, and in Maine, where Republican Sen. Susan Collins is locked in a tough reelection race and has taken heat for her stance on the war. Other advertising buys have targeted moderate Republican districts like those of Reps. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota and Vernon J. Ehlers of Michigan.
Freedom’s Watch has a few full-time employees and is hiring more, and plans to open an office in the Chinatown area of Washington around Labor Day. The group is organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, meaning that it can lobby on issues but cannot expressly advocate for specific candidates. Its stated mission is “to ensure a strong national defense and a powerful effort to confront and defeat global terrorism.”
The Politico’s Martin Kady II contributed to this report.