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This is prime season for the presidential superPACs. They flooded Iowa with attack ads, now they're looking ahead to primaries in South Carolina and Florida. SuperPACs can solicit big, corporate contributions which the candidates cannot. And according to the law, the superPACs are barred from coordinating their ads with candidates.
But as NPR's Peter Overby reports, reality is not that simple.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The superPAC Restore Our Future blanketed Iowa for a month before the Republican presidential caucuses, with ads tearing down former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In the whole barrage of ads, there was only one small hint of the candidate these ads were for. It's in this spot ridiculing Gingrich, but you've got to listen carefully.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Immigration, Medicare, health care, Iraq, attacking Mitt Romney and more.
NEWT GINGRICH: I made a big mistake in the spring.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Haven't we had enough mistakes? Restore Our Future is responsible for the content of this message. Oops.
OVERBY: Restore Our Future is the superPAC for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. And it was doing what superPACs do best - trashing the opposition while letting the candidate keep his distance.
The consultants who run Restore Our Future declined to comment today. But Gingrich has been railing at Romney to stop the attacks. Here's Gingrich on CBS last week.
GINGRICH: This is a man whose staff created the PAC, his millionaire friends fund the PAC, he pretends he has nothing to do with the PAC. It's baloney. He's not telling the American people the truth.
OVERBY: Right here, Gingrich is suggesting that the Romney campaign and superPAC violated federal regulations against illegal coordination. The point of the regs is that candidates run their campaigns on capped and disclosed contributions. And they shouldn't be able to run a back-door operation with big, unregulated money.
The coordination ban dates back to the 1990s, long before the Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United decision in 2010 and paved the way for presidential superPACs. There's a never-ending debate over whether the ban has teeth, and whether the FEC really enforces it.
Cleta Mitchell is a long-time campaign finance lawyer for conservative causes and candidates.
CLETA MITCHELL: There's this myth that somehow there's a wink-wink, nod-nod between the campaigns and the PACs. And I just haven't seen it.
OVERBY: Mitchell's current clients include one of the superPACs supporting Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Romney says he can't tell Restore Our Future to stop the ads even if he wants to. He explained on MSNBC last month.
MITT ROMNEY: If we coordinate, in any way whatsoever, we go to the big house.
OVERBY: Again, Cleta Mitchell.
MITCHELL: If I were advising a candidate or a campaign, I would say to them, don't you ever comment publicly about anything the superPAC is saying. Don't ever say a word about it.
OVERBY: But not everyone agrees. Larry Noble is a former FEC general counsel, now in private practice.
LARRY NOBLE: I think a candidate is safe in making a public comment that they disavow a superPAC's ads, and they wish the superPAC would not do those ads.
OVERBY: Now, there's also a superPAC for Gingrich. It's called Winning Our Future. That's as opposed to the Romney PAC, Restore Our Future. Political strategists nowadays say superPACs are a basic element in a presidential campaign.
The senior adviser to Winning Our Future is Rick Tyler, a former aide to Gingrich. Tyler says the PAC takes its lead from Gingrich but not in secret. So, it's not coordination.
RICK TYLER: What we can do is listen to the campaign and listen to the candidate through the media and determine what the campaign is doing, what the strategy is and echo that strategy, thus expanding the campaign.
MITCHELL: If it's in the public domain, it's fair game for the superPAC.
OVERBY: But Mitchell says she also tells her clients this.
MITCHELL: However, if you're going to be politically astute, what you probably should do is not try to mirror the campaign, but do your own research, your own poll and be able to say: Look, we made our decision based on our own independent determination.
OVERBY: The coordination issue is such a mess, Noble says candidates and superPACs get a mixed message.
NOBLE: They need to be worried about coordination. The question is, what definition of coordination do they need to be worried about.
OVERBY: And the reality is, it's hard to prove coordination. So, Mitt Romney probably wouldn't have to worry about a trip to the big house. In fact, it's a long reach back in time, years actually, to the last case of coordination in which the FEC assessed a penalty.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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