The group airing ads attacking John McCain's environmental record is headed by Sam Wyly, a Texas entrepreneur who has donated thousands of dollars to George W. Bush's political campaigns.
Wyly's newly formed group, Republicans for Clean Air, is airing some $2 million in TV ads that go after McCain on the environment and tout Bush's record. It would be an illegal donation if the Bush campaign were involved with planning the ads, but the Bush camp says it has nothing to do with them.
Wyly and his brother, Charles, gave Bush a total of $210,273 for his 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial races. Charles Wyly is a Bush "pioneer," having raised $100,000 for his presidential run.
McCain's campaign cried foul and asked that the ads be pulled. It charged that the Bush campaign must be behind the ads and complained about them in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission. McCain accused his presidential rival of trying to "hijack the campaign" with big money.
The clear air attack is one of two advertising assaults that have the Arizona senator seeing red. He's also angry about a Bush campaign radio ad in New York accusing him of opposing breast cancer funding. The ad features a breast cancer survivor criticizing McCain and calling for "a candidate with a record on women's issues we can trust."
There were other connections between the Bush campaign and clean air group. The woman who bought the time for the ads, Lydia Meurat, is also the executive director of a political action committee led by Republican Rep. Henry Bonilla of Texas, a longtime Bush backer. Bonilla's spokeswoman and Meurat both said it was a coincidence.
The ads were placed by Multimedia, which has done work in the past for campaigns run by New York Gov. George Pataki and by former U.S. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York, both Bush backers.
"In Hollywood, this would be the plot of a bad spy movie. In Washington, it's business as usual," Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, said in a statement calling Republicans for Clean Air "a sham group."
By McCain's count, the group was spending more than $1.5 million in upstate New York, nearly $150,000 in Columbus, Ohio, and at least $300,000 in San Francisco.
Leading environmental groups say neither McCain nor Bush has a strong record on the issue, but they prefer McCain. Republicans for Environmental Protection has endorsed the Arizona senator. And the Sierra Club has spent nearly $100,000 attacking Bush's record on the environment as governor of Texas.
McCain's response to the Bush breast cancer ad was simple and blunt: "Governor Bush: get out of the gutter."
McCain admits he voted against a military spending bill full of pork that had some cancer funding attached, reports CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker. But he defended his record of support for cancer research.
"Unfortunately, Governor Bush has decided again to take the low road on the issue of breast ancer research, alleging that I opposed it, said McCain. "I voted many, many times in favor of breast cancer research."
Speaking on the radio program Imus in the Morning, the Arizona senator said he could get his message to voters despite such ads, but "If they don't figure it out, we will have run an honorable campaign."
Bush stands by the ad. Both he and McCain insist they're on the high road.
"Mr. McCain is running an angry campaign," said Bush. "I'm going to talk about how to make the education system better."
McCain, for his part, said, "I'm going to try to keep it on the issues and not get bogged down in this tit-for-tat kind of thing."
Polls show McCain competitive in New York, the second-largest of 13 states holding Super Tuesday contests next week.