STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Even before John McCain clinched his party's nomination, a liberal group fired the first shots in an advertising war. Independent groups on both sides are likely to spend hundreds of millions of dollars trashing the other party's nominee. NPR's Peter Overby reports on the ad that turned up in Erie, Pennsylvania.
PETER OVERBY: Without anyone else in the country really noticing, TV viewers in the Erie media market were getting this over the past three weeks.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Man: A trillion dollars in Iraq over the next 10 years - McSame as Bush. A millionaire who's for tax cuts for millionaires. McSame as Bush.
OVERBY: The ad hammers its point with a digital photo of McCain, in which his face is repeatedly clipped out and the face of President Bush is pasted in.
Dr. KEN GOLDSTEIN (University of Wisconsin-Madison): This is the first shot of what's going to be a tremendous amount of outside advertising in 2008.
OVERBY: Ken Goldstein is director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project. We reached him at the Cleveland Airport, where he was stuck yesterday. He's been tracking political ads since 1996 at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
The group behind the anti-McCain ad is called the Campaign to Defend America. Yesterday it announced that its ad buy will exceed $1 million.
Goldstein wonders if it will work.
Dr. GOLDSTEIN: A million dollar-plus in a national environment in which hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent in a still-contested Democratic primary can't be expected to move the needle directly. Maybe it moves the needle indirectly if it starts to get other coverage and attracts other attention.
OVERBY: He says the three-week run of ads in Erie appears to have been a test run.
Dr. GOLDSTEIN: If you're looking for the sorts of swing voters that have decided the 2000 and 2004 elections - white, working class, independent, perhaps economically liberal, economically distressed, but more socially conservative - you will find those sorts of voters in droves in a place like the Erie media market.
OVERBY: Leading the Campaign to Defend America are key figures from the more famous group MoveOn.org. They declined or ignored several requests for interviews this week.
But this ad signals the start of an eight-month spend-a-thon on the airwaves. There's more money than ever available to independent groups, and recent Supreme Court decisions make it harder to restrict their spending.
This technique isn't new. In 2004, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth hardly bought any air time at first. But its ad attacking Democrat John Kerry's war record was recycled endlessly in media coverage.
Last year some wealthy Democrats organized the Democracy Alliance to focus their money. One result is the Fund for America, essentially a money pot for pro-Democratic organizations.
It's the Fund for America that gave the Campaign to Defend America $1 million for that anti-McCain ad.
Steve Weissman has been following independent groups for the Campaign Finance Institute. He explains some of the connections.
Mr. STEVE WEISSMAN (Campaign Finance Institute): Rob McKay, who is the head of the Democracy Alliance and the heir to Taco Bell, is also the head of the Fund for America. And another major actor in the Fund for America is John Podesta, who has been subsidized by George Soros with his Center for American Progress.
OVERBY: The Center for American Progress is a progressive think-tank. Financier Soros not only put more than $25 million into the Democrats' 2004 campaign, he's also given the Fund for America 2.5 million.
The Fund for America has said it is building a kitty of $100 million. There's a conservative counterpart - Freedom's Watch. Its leaders have used $250 million as a target. And you know that neither group will want to leave any of that money unspent.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: The Center for Investigative Reporting contributed to this story. You can look at a chart of how the money flowed in the ad campaign - and it's amazing; it looks like a football play chart - at npr.org/elections.