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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block. SuperPACs are playing a critical role in the Republican presidential contest. These independent groups operate outside the usual contribution limits, and most recently in Florida, that has meant big money. A superPAC supporting Mitt Romney helped to carry him to victory yesterday.

Well, now, Senate Democrats say they're going to investigate superPACs and the rules that govern them. NPR's Peter Overby tells us more.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: One superPAC loomed large in Florida. Restore Our Future hammered former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with ads like this one.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Newt Gingrich's attacks are called foolish, out of bounds and disgusting. Newt attacks because...

OVERBY: Restore Our Future put some 7,000 ads on the Florida airwaves. That was significantly more than Romney's own campaign committee. Gingrich and his superPAC, relatively underfunded, couldn't begin to compete. Restore Our Future filed its final financial report for 2011 last night, showing its total fundraising surpassed $30 million. Seven donors gave a million dollars each and more than 40 corporations and other businesses contributed.

This is the kind of thing that Democrats in the Senate want to investigate. Here's Senator Chuck Schumer of New York announcing the probe.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: We're going to seek to hear directly from stakeholders behind these groups and perhaps also those contributing to them. We want to look at possible ways to enhance disclosure and also to improve the rules that prevent coordination between the outside groups and the campaigns themselves.

OVERBY: The year-end reports show another conservative superPAC looming even larger than Restore Our Future. That's American Crossroads, along with its sibling, a nonprofit entity called Crossroads GPS. Their spokesman, Jonathan Collegio, says they had a good year of fundraising.

JONATHAN COLLEGIO: $51 million raised over the year by American Crossroads, the superPAC, and Crossroads GPS, the 501(c)(4) nonprofit.

OVERBY: Among the donors to American Crossroads, Texas businessman Harold Simmons with $5 million. But about two-thirds of the 51 million total went to Crossroads GPS, and as a nonprofit organization, not a superPAC, it never has to disclose its donors.

Crossroads GPS does so-called issue ads like this new one.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Obama says spend more and promises jobs. Obama donors and insiders line up for handouts. Obama...

OVERBY: It's about Solyndra, a failed manufacturer with ties to the Obama administration. Crossroads GPS even had its own issues platform suitable for use by House and Senate candidates. Again, Jonathan Collegio.

COLLEGIO: I think that what we're doing here is unique in that Crossroads GPS does spend significant resources advocating for those policy prescriptions in the news media, in the paid media and across social media platforms.

OVERBY: But in the Liberal camp, superPACs and issue groups aren't nearly so popular. One leading superPAC is Priorities USA Action supporting President Obama. Right now, it's going after Romney on Spanish language radio.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign Language Spoken) Mitt Romney.

OVERBY: He might have two faces, the ad says, but we know all too well who the true Mitt Romney is. Priorities USA Action barely raised $3 million last year. Its head, former Obama aide Bill Burton, says it's just a matter of when those liberal donors will come through the door.

But there are other places for Democrats to contribute. One is the Obama campaign, of course, and another is the Democratic National Committee, which can help Mr. Obama even more than a superPAC can. For this, the president, without much publicity, last year coached donors to give some $92 million.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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