DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Mitt Romney is disavowing a plan by some wealthy Republicans to attack President Obama for ties to his controversial former pastor. Even the people behind that proposal now say they're abandoning it after their idea was plastered on the front page of The New York Times.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports that even if this plan is dead, it highlights how anyone with money can launch an independent attack ad campaign.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The proposal centered around the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. That controversial pastor was a mentor to President Obama before the two parted ways during the last presidential campaign.
Republicans unaffiliated with Mitt Romney were considering spending $10 million on a racially tinged advertising campaign tying Wright to the president. In Florida yesterday, Romney said he disapproves.
MITT ROMNEY: I hope that our campaigns can respectively be about the future and about issues and about a vision for America.
SHAPIRO: By the time Romney said that, even the people funding the advertising plan had abandoned the idea. And Democrats were pointing out that Romney himself had already brought Wright into the campaign. Yesterday, Romney was asked whether he stands by his comments about Wright from February.
ROMNEY: I'm not familiar precisely with exactly what I said, but I stand by what I said, whatever it was.
SHAPIRO: This is what it was, on Sean Hannity's radio show.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE SEAN HANNITY SHOW")
ROMNEY: I'm not sure which is worse, him listening to Reverend Wright, or him saying that we must be a less-Christian nation.
SHAPIRO: Strategists in both parties doubt that even a huge advertising campaign focused on Reverend Wright could redefine Mr. Obama at this point in his presidency. David Woodard is a political scientist at Clemson University, who also advises Republican candidates.
DAVID WOODARD: There's always something else to know, but usually in the minds of the electorate, they have a pretty fixed idea about the president by this time.
SHAPIRO: Yet if the content of this proposal is dead for now, the concept illuminates something new in 2012. Since the Supreme Court opened the doors to unlimited spending by outside parties, any billionaire with an idea can try to tilt the scales. And they may do things the campaigns disapprove of. Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak warns that edgy attacks bordering on the personal can always backfire.
MATT MACKOWIAK: I don't think professional operatives who have a reputation, who've been working in politics for a long time, would engage in anything that would do themselves reputational damage. And the Jeremiah Wright thing, particularly in light of the, I think, of the response that the effort's gotten, would lead me to think that they might want to think twice about it.
SHAPIRO: To Democrat Bill Burton, going personal is just not worth the risk. Like all independent groups, his superPAC Priorities USA is banned from coordinating with the campaign, yet he does not plan to stray far from the Obama playbook.
BILL BURTON: You hear a lot of this: Don't you have to fight fire with fire? Actually, you fight fire with water. And we think that if we can tell the truth, if we can be factual about Mitt Romney's record and Mitt Romney's catastrophic vision for this country, then President Obama will be re-elected.
SHAPIRO: Yet there are also free agents who are not nearly as close to the campaign as Burton is to the White House. Neera Tanden of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund says billionaires with a cause are already influencing this presidential race.
NEERA TANDEN: Now they're literally flooding the airwaves with negative information that is really determining who's winning primaries, at least on the Republican side.
SHAPIRO: Are there as many Democratic billionaires willing to dump that kind of money into attack ads as there are Republican billionaires?
TANDEN: Not at all. Many progressives are worried that they'll be unarmed on the Democratic side.
SHAPIRO: It's a furious arms race, with the weapons already being fired. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.