While Illinois Sen. Barack Obama prepares his acceptance speech for the Democratic nomination for president, his lawyers are fighting an attack ad that links him to 1960s Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers.
The ad debuted at the end of last week in the swing states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
It boils down the Obama-Ayers relationship to this:
First, Ayers was in the Weather Underground. In 1971, the militant anti-government group set off a bomb in a restroom of the U-S Capitol. Ayers has never apologized.
Second, Obama and Ayers know each other from Chicago. They served together on two charity boards in the 1990s.
The punch line from the ad is this: "Why would Barack Obama be friends with someone who bombed the Capitol and is proud of it? Do you know enough to elect Barack Obama?"
The ad is sponsored by the American Issues Project, and it's a serious effort.
In its first four days, it aired 263 times in 13 markets. The cost so far has been $358,000, according to data from The Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Overall, AIP says it's spending $2.9 million on this ad campaign.
The group filed documents with the Federal Election Commission, saying that all the money came from one donor — businessman Harold Simmons of Dallas.
Simmons has also raised $100,000 for Republican John McCain's presidential campaign. And in 2004, he donated $3 million to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that ran powerful ads attacking Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004.
Obama Reacting Faster Than Kerry Did To Attack Ads
Back then, Democrats faulted Kerry for not reacting fast enough. Now, the Obama camp is responding on three fronts.
First, his campaign produced a counter ad that ignores the American Issues Project and aims straight at McCain.
"With all our problems, why is John McCain talking about the '60s?" the ad asks. "Trying to link Barack Obama to radical Bill Ayers? McCain knows Obama denounced Ayers' crimes."
Second, Obama deployed his lawyer, Bob Bauer. "We're not dealing with some sort of garden-variety regulatory dispute, in which the consequences come later in the form of some sort of civil penalty," Bauer says. "The consequences, whenever they come, I think, are going to be considerably more severe for everyone involved in this."
Groups's Tax-Exempt Status Technically Bars Major Political Work
The lawyer for AIP is well-known conservative attorney Cleta Mitchell, who says that she expected this.
The intricacies here are substantial, to say the least. At the simplest level, AIP has tax-exempt 501(c)4 status, which it picked up from a conservative organization that had gone defunct.
AIP is using that tax exemption, even though it's less than a month old, and its first action is this big campaign ad. With this tax status, AIP's primary purpose can't be political. Lawyer Cleta Mitchell says they have the rest of the fiscal year to balance things out.
Mitchell says she told AIP's leadership, "If you want to do this, you have to make a commitment that you're going to be active, certainly for the next two or three years," Mitchell says. "And so, don't just think this is going to be some flash in the pan over Nov. 5, because that doesn't work.' And they went away and came back and said, 'We want to do that.'"
Obama Camp Trying To Fight Ad
Obama's lawyer has formally asked the Justice Department to investigate AIP's tax status and its fundraising. He has sent letters pushing TV stations to stop running the ad — a common tactic, since the stations broadcast independent political messages at their own discretion.
At the same time, a group called the Free History Project is seeking a cease-and-desist order against the ad. It says AIP violated copyright law by using a clip of an interview with Bill Ayers that appeared in a Free History Project documentary.
Mitchell says that the documentary clip used in the AIP ad qualifies as "fair use" under the law. She says the complaint is a red herring.
Finally, Obama supporters are e-mailing stations to protest the ad.
Mitchell says it all adds up to intimidation. So far, no stations have taken the ad off the air.
Will Evans of the Center for Investigative Reporting contributed to this report.