Romney Says No To Super PAC Smear Campaign

Mitt Romney releases his first general election campaign ad. Plus wealthy GOP investors say their super PAC won't run a smear campaign connecting controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright with President Obama. Host Michel Martin discusses the latest political developments with Lenny McAllister of Politic365.com and author Michael Fauntroy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, new information has been made available to the public in the Trayvon Martin case. Trayvon Martin, of course, is the unarmed Florida teen who was shot and killed by self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

Florida authorities have released photos and autopsy report on the teenager and a new witness account, so we've asked NPR's Greg Allen to walk us through it in just a few minutes.

But first we want to talk politics. Today the presumptive GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney releases his first campaign ad for the general election.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What would a Romney presidency be like? Day one: President Romney immediately approves the Keystone Pipeline, creating thousands of jobs that Obama blocked. President Romney introduces tax cuts and reforms that reward job creators, not punish them.

MARTIN: And there's more but the Romney campaign has not aired commercials since his top Republican challenger Rick Santorum dropped out of the race last month. Mr. Romney has vowed to run a clean and positive campaign which he says contrasts with the Obama campaign which he says is focused on character assassination.

But this ad comes on the heels of news that wealthy GOP investors funding a superPAC proposed an Obama smear campaign which planned to resurrect the connection between President Obama and his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr.. At the center of the news, conservative multi-billionaire Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade. Ricketts commissioned the $10 million advertising plan, along with others, pending approval.

Joe Ricketts now says a proposal to use Reverend Wright in commercials was never set in motion and those ads will not air, but he still says he's going to fund a multi-million dollar effort to unseat Mr. Obama this November. We wanted to talk more about this and the state of the race in general so we've called upon Michael Fauntroy. He's author of the book "Republicans and the Black Vote." He's a professor of public policy at George Mason University.

He's here with us in our Washington D. C. studios. Welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

MICHAEL FAUNTROY: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Also with us, Lenny McAllister. He is a senior contributor to Politics365.com and a former Republican National Committee strategy consultant. He's a sought after commentator. Lenny McAllister, welcome back to you.

LENNY MCALLISTER: Thanks, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: Great. Now, Lenny, I'm going to start with you because even though Mr. Ricketts say they are not going to go forward with this ad campaign, one part of it caught our eye. It says that - I'm using quotes here - "the campaign proposed hiring an extremely literate, conservative African-American as its spokesperson." Now that sounds like you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Did they approach you for this task? Did you know about this?

MCALLISTER: No, because I probably didn't fit into the metrosexual part of the adjective and description that they had in there as well.

MARTIN: Metrosexual?

MCALLISTER: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: Interesting.

MCALLISTER: If you see the whole thing it was metrosexual, attractive, eloquent, this, that, and the other African-American conservative that they were going after. And, no, I wasn't approached for that and I wouldn't have done something along those lines.

Trying to do this and trying to play the race card that conservatives say we hate so much, and then trying to use it in order to chip away the African-American vote is a bad strategy. It was something that would've just alienated black voters from the Republican Party, not just in 2012, but probably for 2014 and 2016 and 2018 as well.

I think the more appropriate strategy, and if they were to ask me for my advice, would be to let's try to do an Obama on the other side, to counter President Obama, is to use his own words. I mean, rather than using Jeremiah Wright, use the guns and religion statement.

Use the fact that there are a lot of African-American ministers and preachers that are against his stance on gay marriage. Let's talk about the fact that President Obama has been able to be a little bit of everything for all people, but he's had a very hard time really embracing the title of the first black president and being able to be seen as being close to that voting block, despite the 97 percent of voting loyalty that he had in 2008.

MARTIN: In fact, let me just...

MCALLISTER: Those are the strategies they should be going after.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in here and say that you wrote a blog post about this saying to African-American voters: President Obama, he's just not that into you. Which is your take on it. But Michael Fauntroy, I want to pick up on something that Lenny McAllister said. He seems to believe that this was aimed at African-American voters. Do you?

FAUNTROY: No. In fact, I don't think that there's anything Republicans can do to target African-American voters in this election cycle that will make any significant impact on lessening the number of votes that go to President Obama or increasing the number of votes that go to Governor Romney.

The fact of the matter is, this ad was targeted toward people who can be racially primed and encouraged to consider President Obama in racial terms, and to just continue to support and validate their own suspicions about who he is and what he's about. And...

MARTIN: But were those people going to vote for President Obama anyway?

FAUNTROY: Yes, but there's still people, believe it or not, who are undecided about which way they're going to go. And some people can be reached through this kind of coded language or not so coded language. And by bringing up this proposal, in some respects, they get what they want anyway. That is to get people - to remind people about Jeremiah Wright without actually having to commit the funds or actually putting their money behind criticizing Obama's connection to Wright.

So they get what they want, without actually having to do what they wanted to do.

MARTIN: Now, the presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney responded to the news even before Joe Ricketts made his statement that he was not going to go forward with this. And this is what he told reporters after a campaign rally. This is yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN RALLY)

MITT ROMNEY: Having a campaign focused on character assassination is one of the things I find offensive, among many others, and the PAC description that came in the New York Times. If that's accurate, why, obviously that's something I repudiate.

MARTIN: Well, so, Michael, you're reacting to this.

FAUNTROY: Yes. Is this the same Mitt Romney whose PACs piled on Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum with millions of dollars in South Carolina? I mean, what exactly is he talking about?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FAUNTROY: You know, this is insane. Ultimately, if he's going to take the position that he's not going to support this kind of stuff, then he's likely to lose.

MARTIN: Well, Lenny, what do you say about that? And if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

MCALLISTER: I...

MARTIN: OK. Go ahead.

MCALLISTER: I agree with the professor. I mean, this is - Newt Gingrich was up by double digits in Iowa until he got carpet bombed in Iowa and Newt never recovered. He had a little bit of a blip in South Carolina and that was it. He did the same thing on Rick Santorum and misrepresented some of Rick Santorum's record.

But what he had to do, though, and he was trying to do this the same way, is speak against a superPAC, and then allow them to do all of his dirty work. I mean, that's what he did. He had a parallel strategy. Let the superPACs do their work and then he'd come in behind it, say I have no control over that money, but I'll benefit from all the results.

Now, with that said do I think that it's going to play a matter in this race? Absolutely. This is not going to go any place.

MARTIN: What's the that? You mean race?

MCALLISTER: This strategy got blinked.

MARTIN: What do you mean? What do you think? What is the that that you're referring to? You're saying negative campaigning or comparative campaigning or race? What's the that in that sentence you're referring to?

MCALLISTER: Is there a D box for all of the above?

MARTIN: Hmm.

MCALLISTER: I mean, we're going to see this from superPACs. We may not see this strategy play out in May, but we may see something else come out in July. We will something come out at the DNC in Charlotte, where they have problems with unemployment. You have a very unpopular Democratic governor that only got into office by riding the Obama coattails and she won't even run for reelection now.

You're going to see a lot of these things coming into play, moving forward. It may not be the strategy that got leaked to the media but it will be something that's going to take advantage of the superPAC money that can create enough distance away from both candidates to allow them to do the dirty work while the candidates come in behind and benefit as a result.

MARTIN: We're talking with Lenny McAllister. He's a Republican strategist and Michael Fauntroy is author of the book "Republicans and the Black Vote." He's a public policy professor at George Mason University. You know, we're talking about race and ethnicity, Professor Fauntroy. There's news from the Census Bureau saying people of color now represent more than half of America's population under the age of one. That's 50.4 percent. And that's slight but it is a first for this country.

Estimates show that the numbers are only going to increase as minority birth rates will continue to exceed the birthrate of non-Hispanic whites in this country for years to come. So what do you think this means for our, sort of, political conversations? I mean you're saying that this effort was an attempt to appeal to, kind of, white voters.

FAUNTROY: Fear.

MARTIN: Fear.

FAUNTROY: Yes.

MARTIN: So is this the last cycle in which that could even be possible or useful?

FAUNTROY: Well, first, this is not a surprise. The Census Bureau projections have for some time said that ultimately this would happen, so it's not a surprise. But I do find it curious that it comes - that the reports are made or the statement is released at the same time we're talking about this Ricketts campaign - or potential campaign - because the truth of the matter is this kind of news feeds into the fear for certain white Americans that they're losing the country.

And so going forward, I think it's just going to continue to polarize our politics in some respects, and as we look toward the future, political candidates, elected officials and others, are going to have to shift the paradigm and shift the way in which they deal with different kinds of citizens, because we're just going to be far more diverse than we've ever been before.

MARTIN: Lenny, what do you think? And I want to mention here that House Democrats introduced a bill aiming to make voter registration easier for all Americans. They say this is necessary because they believe that there's a concerted effort on the part of Republicans to suppress the ability of minorities to vote, and they think it's fear-based.

Obviously Republicans say they're just trying to protect the franchise. So what's your - what's your argument about - how do you feel that this new demographic reality is going to affect our politics, as briefly as you can?

MCALLISTER: Well, it should be a wake-up call to Republicans. It should be a second prong of a two-prong wake-up call for Republicans. The first one was the election of President Barack Obama from state senator to senator to president within a matter of, really, five years. In 2002 he was a state senator in Illinois that was an underdog for the U.S. Senate race and then by 2008 he's president-elect.

This should be wake-up call. He beat the establishment for that U.S. Senate seat. He beat the establishment to win the primary nomination for the Democrats against a former first lady, and now he won the presidency against a guy that's been in - that was in the Senate for over - now he's going on over 30 years, roughly.

So, one, race does matter. The new demographics of America does matter. And number two, Republicans, here you sit four years later and although you may have some more people in office, you do have some people, such as Allen West and Tim Scott, and you have Michael Williams running for Congress, you got Stephanie Carter down there in the State House in Texas and you have people such as Eugene Dokes here in Missouri running for the State House here - you have black Republicans, but if they're not making the inroads with black America and with minorities and young Americans to make them balance their perspectives on race, it still doesn't matter. This should not be something that scares Republicans into voter repression, which I don't think these new voter ID laws are.

MARTIN: OK.

MCALLISTER: It should instead push us into pro-activism, to heal the relationships and the hurt from Southern strategy over the last three or four decades as...

MARTIN: OK.

MCALLISTER: ...we go into a new era.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. That's Politics365.com senior contributor Lenny McAllister. We caught up with him in St. Louis, Missouri. He's speaking at the Rally for Common Sense there this weekend.

Also with us, author and professor Michael Fauntroy. He was here in Washington, D.C. with me. He's professor at George Mason University.

Thank you so much for being with us, gentlemen.

FAUNTROY: Thank you.

MCALLISTER: God bless you all.

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