President Bush attended three fundraising events for Sen. John McCain this week, and the Arizona Republican carefully avoided any television shots of them together.
That prompted Democratic primary front-runner and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama to take a swipe at McCain in a speech Tuesday. And it made the small screen, thanks to MoveOn.org Political Action, a political action committee that has endorsed Obama but is independent of his campaign.
MoveOn created a mash-up that went retro, blending the theme song from the 1960s Patty Duke Show with video of President Bush and McCain acting in ways similar to each other. It suggested, as the song said, "You can lose your mind, when cousins are two of a kind."
It's cute, and it fits nicely into Obama's strategy.
But it's also the type of outside ad that Obama says he doesn't want in the campaign. Both he and McCain have said they want independent groups to stay out of the fall race for the White House.
The Role of Independent Groups
This stance flies in the face of recent trends and current expectations. In 2004, the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth raised seed money from big conservative donors and produced an ad challenging Democratic nominee and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's war record from Vietnam. That ad changed the direction of the campaign.
This year, with partisan passions running high, observers believe more money than ever is waiting to be deployed.
Still, Obama and McCain say they're not interested in the support. Last August, Obama gave his donors this advice: "Get involved in the campaign that we've set up, that is aboveboard, that is transparent, that is legal, and I think if people channel their energies in that way, we'll all be better off."
His chief fundraiser, Penny Pritzker, reportedly delivered a stronger version of that message to the campaign's national finance committee — its top-dollar money raisers — in early May. And weeks later, an Obama staffer met with East Coast fundraisers and practically ordered them to avoid so-called 527 groups.
The 527s, working under Section 527 of the tax code, have the diciest reputation among independent groups, tending to rely on big donors to finance aggressive attack ads.
A fundraiser who was at the East Coast meeting said the Obama staffer warned them that if they give to 527s, the campaign will cut off contact with them. He was interviewed by Will Evans of the Center for Investigative Reporting, who contributed to this story.
The Obama edict seems to lump 527 groups in with others — PACs that raise regulated hard money, such as MoveOn, unions and 501(c)4 advocacy groups on issues such as the environment.
One result has been that some big liberal plans have deflated. Most notably, a 501(c)4 called Progressive Media USA initially said it would spend $40 million bashing McCain on television. But now, a well-connected Democratic strategist says the group can't raise enough money. Progressive Media's head, David Brock, didn't respond to NPR's interview requests over several weeks.
Power of Independent Money
MoveOn and other groups show the power of independent money.
The Services Employees International Union has spent roughly $10 million promoting Obama in the primaries, and it is busy organizing voters.
"I think that he respects our work," said SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger, referring to Obama. "And I don't think that he was doing anything to undermine the work that we do."
Some of Obama's donors feel the same way. New York filmmaker Jeffrey Levy-Hinte says he wants a diversified political portfolio. "Although I understand that the campaign is not so terribly happy about these independent organizations, I do think there is more at stake than a presidential election," Levy-Hinte said.
And if things are in flux on the left, that's nothing compared with what's happening on the right.
McCain attacked 527 groups with gusto during his days fighting for tougher campaign finance laws. He wrote the 2000 law that forced 527s to disclose their donors.
But speaking recently on The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News, McCain seemed to equivocate. The senator said he intends to run an honorable campaign, but he also said, "It's going to be a tough campaign; 527s are there. We're not going to unilaterally disarm."
This year's anticipated conservative offense once was going to include Freedom's Watch, a new group financed largely by casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Insiders claimed it would raise $200 million, $250 million or more, and spend much of it attacking Obama. But now Freedom's Watch has switched to "Plan B," a spokesman says. It's currently concentrating on House and Senate campaigns.
Still, 527s can quickly organize and strike — just as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth did in 2004. Consultant Chris LaCivita worked with Swift Boat Veterans then and is developing other plans now.
"Unless they outlaw the First Amendment, you're just not gonna see these types of things end," LaCivita says.
There is one drastic step the candidates could take. They could say that after Election Day, donors to outside groups can forget about any White House dinners, ambassadorships or other favors.
They could say that. But so far, they haven't.