Independent Groups Target Iowa, New Hampshire

Independent political-interest groups are working to influence the Iowa and New Hampshire presidential contests with big money and sophisticated strategies.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

As the countdown to the primaries gets shorter, candidates aren't the only ones giving it all they've got. Many independent political groups are working just as hard and very creatively.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Say you live in Iowa and you're setting out to do some gift shopping. You do a Google search for safe toys, along with advertising links to healthychild.org, and safe toys at Target, you'll also get one for yougogirl.com.

Unidentified Woman #1: I have to say you go girl.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): Oh, yes.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

Sen. CLINTON: Would you go with me?

Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah.

Sen. CLINTON: Yes. Shake it.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Unidentified Woman #1: Let Hillary know you're going to the caucus, going to change things.

OVERBY: That's from one of the videotape "You Go Girl." It features an exchange between Hillary Clinton and a supporter in New Hampshire. It comes with a message urging Democratic women in Iowa to go to a presidential caucus next month even if they've never gone to one before.

But here's the deal. None of this is from Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Ms. MAREN HESLA (Director, Women Vote!, Emily's List): We wanted to find women where they live.

OVERBY: Maren Hesla directs voter mobilization strategies at the pro-choice women's group Emily's List. She says they did a poll of Democratic women around Iowa. It turns out that Clinton's biggest fans among women had never attended a caucus. So yougogirl.com explains the caucus process. The Emily's List strategy also includes this.

(Soundbite of Emily's List ad)

SARAH: Hi. This is Sarah from Cedar Rapids and I'm calling on behalf of Emily's List. In a day or two, you're going to get some information about the January 3rd caucus.

OVERBY: A robo-call from a woman who's in the Web video ads announcing a one-page mailer. The mailer steers the recipient to yougogirl.com and after it arrives, Sarah robo-calls again.

Maren Hesla.

Ms. HESLA: You have to understand you're playing at the margins. I would consider the yougogirl.com campaign a success if we added five to 10,000 new women caucus participants for Senator Clinton.

OVERBY: And this is just one channel of national money flowing into Iowa and New Hampshire.

A conservative group called Common Sense Issues last week launched TrustHuckabee.com. It's also doing robotic phone calls disguised as polls, making negative points about the other Republican candidates.

Patrick Davis is director of Common Sense Issues.

Mr. PATRICK DAVIS (Executive Director, Common Sense Issues): We are gathering information about what the people of Iowa think about a host of issues and where their interest is in people running for president.

OVERBY: And on TV, a group called Republican Majority for Choice has a double barrel attack on Mitt Romney, his style and his substance.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Unidentified Man #1: In 2001, he flipped saying I do not wish to be labeled pro-choice. In 2002, he flopped.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): I will preserve and protect our women's right to choose.

Unidentified Man #1: This year, he flipped again.

OVERBY: Right now Hillary Clinton is probably getting the most attention on both sides. This week, Emily's List and its allies, the Public Employees Union, AFSCME, and the American Federation of Teachers plunked down $387,000 to help her, while rightmarchdd.com and Life and Liberty Political Action Committee laid out $72,000 against her.

Also weighing in against Clinton is a liberal pack - Democratic Courage. Its message, that Clinton is a wimp who gets pushed around by the GOP.

(Soundbite of campaign ad)

Unidentified Woman #2: But then the Republicans attacked.

Mr. ROMNEY: Tell me this isn't a socialist idea.

Unidentified Woman #2: And Hillary backed down.

Unidentified Man #2: Remember the Hillary bond program?

OVERBY: Democratic Courage president Glenn Hurowitz said they modeled the ad on some ads from 2004, ads that crippled frontrunner Howard Dean just before the Iowa caucuses.

Mr. GLENN HUROWITZ (President, Democratic Courage): They were bringing new information forward to the electorate that really wasn't getting out there in any other way.

OVERBY: At the University of Iowa, Professor Steffan Schmidt was watching the caucuses long before they became a political free-for-all. He says Iowans still like to think of them the old way.

Professor STEFFAN SCHMIDT (Political Science, University of Iowa): And we wanted to make them quaint and local and cuddly and sort of wintery with some hot chocolate and cookies.

OVERBY: But with national groups joining in the bombardment of ordinary Iowa voters, it can't be that way anymore.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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