ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
While Barack Obama prepares his acceptance speech with the Democratic nomination, his lawyers are fighting an attack ad. It links him to the leader the 1960s group the Weather Underground, William Ayers.
As NPR's Peter Overby reports, this is going to be a long battle.
PETER OVERBY: 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. And the punch line...
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
U: 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?
OVERBY: The ad is sponsored by American Issues Project, and it's a serious effort. In its first four days, it aired 263 times in 13 markets. The cost for that, $358,000. That's according to data from The Campaign Media Analysis Group.
Overall, AIP says it's spending $2.9 million on this ad campaign. He filed documents with the Federal Election Commission, saying that all the money came from one donor, businessman Harold Simmons of Dallas. He's also raised as much as $100,000 for John McCain's presidential campaign.
And in 2004, he donated $3 million to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. That's the group that ran powerful ads attacking Democratic nominee John Kerry. Democrats then faulted Kerry for not reacting fast enough. Now, the Obama camp is responding on three fronts.
First, it produced a counter ad ignoring American Issues Project and aiming straight at McCain.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
U: With all our problems, why is John McCain talking about the '60s trying to link Barack Obama to radical Bill Ayers? McCain knows Obama denounced Ayers' crimes committed...
OVERBY: Second, Obama deployed his lawyer, Bob Bauer.
M: We're not dealing with some sort of garden variety regulatory dispute in which the consequences come later in the form of a civil penalty. The consequences, whenever they come, I think, are going to be considerably more severe for everybody involved in this.
OVERBY: The lawyer for AIP is well-known conservative attorney Cleta Mitchell.
M: Did I expect this? Sure, you bet. These people play hardball.
OVERBY: The intricacies here are substantial, to say the least. At the simplest level, AIP has tax-exempt 501c4 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. As a 501c4, AIP's primary purpose can't be political. Lawyer Cleta Mitchell says they have the rest of the fiscal year to balance things out.
M: I say 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. Don't just think this is going to be some flash in the pan over Nov. 5th because that doesn't work. They went away and came back and said, well, we want to do that.
OVERBY: Bauer has formally asked the Justice Department to investigate AIP's tax status and its fundraising. He sent letters pushing TV stations to stop running the ad. That's 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 amounts to fair use under the law and the complaint is a red herring. And 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.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
SIEGEL: Reporter Will Evans of the Center for Investigative Reporting contributed to Peter's story. You can read more about the American Issues Project on our blog, the Secret Money Project.
You can also find analysis and profiles at npr.org and on the Web site and also in many public radio stations. You can listen to NPR's live coverage of the Democratic National Convention.