Watch CBSN Live

Amid Negative Ads, McCain Claims High Road

This story was written by political reporter Brian Montopoli.

A controversial ad out this week is raising questions about how much control presidential candidates have over their broad array of campaign supporters - and how much they might ultimately want.

The ad, from the Republican Party of North Carolina, is aimed at raising questions statewide about two of the state's Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Normally, such an ad wouldn't get much national attention, but this isn't you're run-of-the-mill local politics spot: It focuses on the support both candidates, Bev Perdue and Richard Moore, have given Democratic presidential frontrunner Barack Obama - who, the ad claims, is "too extreme" for the state.

"For 20 years, Barack Obama sat in his pew, listening to his pastor," an announcer says as the ad opens. That controversial pastor, Jeremiah Wright, then appears onscreen, saying, "No, no, no. Not God Bless America. God Damn America!" (The ad, which you can watch here, has been called "misleading," since, according to Obama, he was not sitting in his pew when this particular sermon was delivered.)

Presumptive GOP nominee John McCain, who has pledged to run a "respectful campaign," quickly condemned the ad. He suggested in a letter to the state party chair, which was released to the media, that the spot "degrades our civics and distracts us from the very real differences we have with the Democrats." The Republican National Committee also condemned the ad.

The state party, however, didn't back down.

"We make the decisions how to run state campaigns here," state party spokesman Brent Woodcox said on Thursday. "We think it's a legitimate question to ask and we intend to run it."

After McCain's letter went out, skeptical bloggers questioned whether the Arizona senator was trying to have it both ways, suggesting that he was publicly taking the high road while allowing the anti-Obama ad to remain on track to air. Charlie Black, a chief strategist to McCain, called that notion "crazy."

"We wish we had influence on state parties, but we cannot legally tell them what to do," Black told He acknowledged that in so-called "targeted states," the general election battlegrounds to which the national parties often funnel money, the national party and nominee could potentially use "financial persuasion" to try to exert control over the state party. But Black said the McCain campaign wasn't doing so, and additionally noted that North Carolina isn't a targeted state.

"I could give you my 35 year history of watching the RNC try to control state parties, and it's not a very good batting average," Black added.

The North Carolina spot wasn't the only ad to surface this week over which a presidential campaign has no control. Floyd Brown, the producer of the famous "Willie Horton" ad that helped defeat Michael Dukakis, unveiled a 60-second anti-Obama spot called "Victims." The spot opens with an announcer detailing the gang-related murders of three Chicago residents in 2001.

"That same year, a Chicago state senator named Barack Obama voted against expanding the death penalty for gang-related murders," says the ad's female narrator, as ominous music plays in the background. "When the time came to be tough, Obama chose to be weak. So the question is, can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?"

Brown's ad, which he says will air in North Carolina and elsewhere, has thus far has not attracted much attention. But with outside groups on both sides gearing up for massive spending to influence the 2008 campaign - in the 2004 election cycle, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, the outside groups known as 527s raised more than $400 million - "Victims" looks like a harbinger of things to come.

The 527 groups, named for their tax designation, can raise money to run issue ads but cannot legally coordinate with the campaigns. (Among the major 527s planning major pushes this year are the conservative Freedom's Watch and liberal Campaign for America's Future.) Asked if he would stop running the "Victims" ad if McCain asked him to, Brown, who fronts his own 527, replied, "I think that you should get a primer on election law."

"What they think or don't think is none of my business, because I'm not a part of their campaign," Brown said. He added: "I am bound by federal law. I can't take direction from them, can't work with them, can't really listen to them."

Black, McCain's strategist, says his expectation is that "if somebody runs an ad designed to help McCain that hits below the belt, he's going to say so, and say he wishes they didn't run it." (Along with this week's spot, Black points out, McCain condemned an ad he deemed inappropriate during the GOP nomination battle.) But Black adds that "we can't spend all day every day commenting on everybody's ads."

"The irony is McCain was the guy who helped pass the campaign finance bill, which really downsized the power of the political parties and upsized the power of these shadowy organizations," said Republican strategist John Feehery.

For candidates like McCain and Obama, who have aggressively sought to portray themselves as champions of clean campaigning, ads from outside groups and state parties - even when they're put out by people on the same page as the candidate ideologically - have the potential to tarnish the above-the-fray image the candidates want to project.

"When there is an independent group out there putting out a negative ad, voters typically don't make a distinction between your ad and the ad of your group," said Terry Nelson, who was McCain's campaign manager until the middle of last year. "A lot of the time the candidate faces the brunt of whatever the backlash is to that ad."

Ads from outside groups don't necessarily hurt a candidate - the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth spots from 2004, for example, are credited with helping George W. Bush defeat John Kerry in the general election. Many of those involved with such groups have past connections to a party or candidate: Chris LaCivita, who was the Swift Boat Veterans' adviser on media strategy, worked previously for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. George Allen, and the Republican Party of Virginia.

Asked if outside groups like the Swift Boat Veterans could be accused of engaging in tacit collusion with the campaigns - working in concert without engaging in any official communication - LaCivita said no. He argued that the reason people who have worked with the parties become involved with outside groups is simply that they have the relevant experience.

"No one in my business in their right mind is going to willfully engage in an illegal activity that could get their ass in jail," said LaCivita. In 2004, he added, "the left made a big deal about my past. But they could never prove we were coordinating, because we weren't."

Feehery said that McCain is less open to charges of tacit collusion than Mr. Bush was because of the nature of his campaign and the public perception that the Arizona senator genuinely disapproves of below-the-belt tactics.

"The Bush campaign had a very corporate structure," he said. "McCain's campaign is much less structured, smaller, less corporate. They're more nimble and more able to turn on a dime. But no one really knows where they're going next. So I think it's plausible and credible to say McCain is not going to be telling these 527s, even in a tacit way, what to do."

The only real power McCain -- or any candidate -- has over such groups, Nelson argued, has to do with the potential consequences over the long term for those who fund or work with outside groups whose ads a candidate disavows.

"If John McCain becomes president, the question people have to ask themselves is, 'do you want to have a relationship with the Republican Party?,'" Nelson said. "Because it's difficult, as a matter of honor, for him to allow his White House or party to engage in relationships with outside groups that he has condemned."

Unsavory ads aren't always the work of outside groups, however - they sometimes come from the national parties themselves. Nelson himself was the head of the RNC's independent expenditure unit in 2006, which was behind the somewhat infamous ad targeting Senate candidate Harold Ford Jr.

With voters faced with the bewildering task of differentiating between ads coming from the candidate, ads coming from the party, and ads coming from outside groups, perhaps it's no surprise that skepticism so often greets candidates' promises about "respectful" campaigns.

"Just about every campaign in America starts on the premise it's going to be positive," said LaCivita. "The first time somebody lays a glove on somebody else, all that changes."
By Brian Montopoli

View CBS News In