One TV commercial in Iowa urges voters to tell the candidates to support tougher immigration laws. Another in New Hampshire says they should find out where the president and the candidates stand on the issue of nuclear weapons.
Two more single out Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean.
Voters might have thought they would be free of issue ads in the weeks leading up to the first contests of the presidential race, thanks to the year-old campaign finance law, but spots by independent groups still fill the airwaves.
"Lo and behold, they're alive and well," said Evan Tracey, president of Virginia-based Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks campaign ads.
The Supreme Court upheld restrictions last month that ban ads that mention federal candidates within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days of a general election if they are paid for with "soft money" — unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals.
The law was meant to crack down on ads by independent groups in the final weeks of federal campaigns that critics argue are disguised as issues but really intended to sway voters by criticizing the candidates.
The commercials by independent groups that are running in states with primaries or caucuses in the next month are exempt because they don't mention federal candidates by name or they are paid for with "hard money," donations that come from individuals and political action committees.
"It shows that hard money lives, and that the shift to the 'Tell the candidates ...' language drops the level of personal attacks in the final weeks," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.
The Coalition for the Future American Worker, made up of several immigration reform groups, is broadcasting a 30-second spot in Iowa that claims that immigrants have caused Iowans to lose their jobs and get paid less.
"Now politicians want new laws to import millions more foreign workers and give amnesty to illegal aliens," an announcer says. "Tell the candidates: No more foreign workers and no amnesty for millions here legally."
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform Congressional Task Force, which is part of the coalition, said the ad is not meant to influence the presidential election but to raise a legislative issue.
"People can't infer that we're talking about any particular candidate from our ad and it's a stretch to say they would infer only federal candidates," Stein said.
In New Hampshire, which holds its primary Jan. 27, the Nuclear Threat Initiative is running a 30-second spot that opens with footage of thick smoke billowing from the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
"If America had seen this coming, we would have moved quickly to prevent it," an announcer says. "Today, we face even greater danger: terrorists could get a nuclear bomb made from materials stolen overseas."
The ad, which also has aired in Iowa, asks voters to "find out where the president and the candidates stand" on securing materials for nuclear weapons and ensuring it's a priority.
Two other commercials mention Dean, but are legal because they were paid for using money from political action committees.
A 30-second ad airing in Iowa by the GOP-leaning Club for Growth takes Dean to task for his plan to repeal President Bush's tax cuts and says that the former governor should take his "left-wing freak show back to Vermont where it belongs."
"We wanted to take the first shot at him from the right this year, and we wanted to do it in where people are paying the most attention right now," said Stephen Moore, president of the group, which pours money into political races to help elect fiscal conservatives.
Democratic strategists and pollsters say the Iowa race is highly competitive, with Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt vying for the lead but Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts gaining ground.
Countering the attack on Dean is a positive 60-second spot running in Iowa by Take Back America SEIU, the political action committee of the Service Employees International Union.
The 1.6 million-member union, which endorsed Dean, is paying for the ad through the committee because it wanted to voice its opinions about the race up to the Jan. 19 caucuses while still complying with the law.
"We've been unbelievably careful with all of this," said Patrick Brennan, a spokesman for Take Back America SEIU. He said the group is spending about $500,000, a moderate amount, to run the ad the next two weeks.
In the ad, a group of nurses and senior citizens tell why they support Dean's health care plans instead of those of his rivals who "have been in Washington for 30 years, and although they're very good people, we still have the same old, same old."