As Candidates Smile, Outside Groups Attack

Republican presidential hopeful, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, joined by Chuck Norris, right, speaks Saturday, Dec. 15, 2007, at the New Hampshire Community Technical College in Berlin, N.H. (AP Photo/Joel Page)
While Republican Mike Huckabee wishes voters Merry Christmas in a television ad, a group organized by his supporters makes automated phone calls slipping the knife into his opponents.

John Edwards, lagging behind his Democratic rivals in cash, gets more than a million dollars in help from labor unions running parallel campaigns.

And Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is locked in a tight race in Iowa, has well-organized and highly strategic assistance from labor backers and EMILY's List, the pro-abortion rights fundraising group that aims to help female candidates.

Presidential candidates are benefiting - and sometimes being attacked - by independent groups that are only now beginning to make their presence known in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire. These groups can be more targeted, more negative and can coordinate their activities in ways that candidate campaigns cannot.

At the same time, the contenders themselves are operating on parallel tracks. Republican candidates in particular are stuffing mailboxes with negative messages about their rivals while airing cheery holiday greetings on television.

Mitt Romney has been especially prolific with negative mail. One piece portrays Fred Thompson as having a "do nothing record" on immigration and characterizes his other rivals - John McCain, Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani - as too lenient toward illegal immigrants.

In one brochure mailed in Iowa, Thompson criticizes the economic policies of Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor with this: "Mike Huckabee talks like a Republican but taxes like a Democrat." Clinton and Barack Obama have exchanged mail over their health care plans.

The mixed messages have their purposes. Negative television can damage both the source and the target. But negative mailings can be aimed at supporters and at voters with a specific gripe.

"Broadcast messages are seen by a broader audience," said Stephen D. Ansolabehere, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on political advertising. "Your attack direct mail is going to be sent to the people you want it to be sent to. It's not going to go to areas you don't want to alienate."

Outside groups often have been more likely to go on the air with negative advertising. But for the most part, they too have been targeted with their attacks, if they attack at all.

The Club for Growth, which advocates fiscal conservatism, appears to be an exception for now, running television ads against Huckabee. A conservative political action committee called has spent about $330,000 in mailings and phone calls against Clinton.

The group helping Huckabee, Common Sense Issues, is conducting automated interactive phone calls in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida that provide a positive message about Huckabee or information that is critical of his opponents. It also is organizing caucus-goers for Huckabee, a significant leg up for a cash-strapped candidate who has only recently seen his campaign catch fire.

EMILY's List has spent $486,000 to identify about 20,000 Clinton-leaning women in Iowa who voted in 2006 but did not participate in the presidential caucus in 2004. Maren Hesla, who heads the group's independent expenditures, said her staff is using automated and personal phone calls, direct mail, Google ads and the Web to educate women about the caucus process.