STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. In between all the TV ads from the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain, you might have noticed some other political ads by groups you've never heard of, like Born Alive Truth or Brave New Films. Independent groups have thrown themselves into the presidential campaign, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: The world of independent political groups is not an uplifting one.
(Soundbite of political ad)
Unidentified Man #1: Tell Senator Obama to face the facts about the surge.
Unidentified Woman #1: Now, John McCain is twisting the facts.
Unidentified Woman #2: But if Barack Obama had his way, I wouldn't be here.
Unidentified Man #2: More (unintelligible) style corporate tax breaks. That's McCain's solution for America's economy.
OVERBY: A sampling there occurred ads from Vets for Freedom, Planned Parenthood, Born Alive Truth Pact and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. The shorthand term for these messages is 527 ads. That's because some of the advertisers operate under Section 527 of the tax code. The quintessential 527 was Swift Boat Veterans for Truth four years ago. Now, most groups don't use the 527 status, but however they set themselves up, most of them can raise unlimited sums from wealthy donors, some of them can keep their finances secret, and all of them are typically focused on tearing down the opposition.
Early on, both candidates tried to discourage this whole business. Obama's campaign even told its fundraising team not to associate with 527s. It turns out the candidates don't have much say in this. Take Brave New Films, a progressive group. Right now, it's working up an ad on McCain insinuating that his health is worse than we know and demanding that he release all of his medical records. The founder of Brave New Films, Hollywood director Robert Greenwald, says they feel a niche in the liberal-message network.
Mr. ROBERT GREENWALD (Founder, Brave New Films): Character, as it affects policy, rather than the fifth paragraph in the global-warming plank, which is important, it's just not our job.
OVERBY: And there's the American Issues Project. It recently ran an ad insinuating that Obama has close ties to a Vietnam War-era radical militant who is a fugitive from the FBI. AIP's board president, Ed Martin, says the ad got good reviews from potential donors.
Mr. ED MARTIN (President, American Issues Project): The American Issues Project has had people of incredible financial means who have said this was very effective, this is helpful, I'm interested to talk more.
OVERBY: But not everything is running full throttle among the independent groups. The laws have changed since 2004. They can get trickier to operate. On top of that, cash flow is down dramatically. Each side is convinced the other is spending more. Republican consultant Eddie Mahe says that many big-ticket donors are watching, but so far, not playing. He says they're leery of McCain, and they're definitely not excited about Sarah Palin.
Mr. HENRY E. "EDDIE" MAHE (Strategic Counselor, Foley & Lardner LLP): I'm not talking about rank-and-file voters out there. I'm talking about that very small group of people who understand the (unintelligible) expenditures and have the capacity to write at least 50 100,000 dollar checks.
OVERBY: On the Democratic side, strategist Tom Matzzie says time is running out for groups that aren't already at work. He says they're going to find that all the TV time has been bought up.
Mr. TOM MATZZIE (Founder and Chairman, Accountable America): Or perhaps the legal risks just aren't worth it for something that's only going to happen for a week or two, and donors aren't interested.
OVERBY: But there's more to this groups than television. In late October, voters in swing states will start getting direct mail, phone calls and push polls. The messages will be even harsher than the TV ads. The messengers might be groups already on the field or some that haven't been heard from yet. Political scientist David Magleby of Brigham Young University has been studying the influence of these outside operators since the 1990s. He says they saved the worst for last.
Dr. DAVID MAGLEBY (Political Science, Brigham Young University): A group might raise the issue of Senator McCain's age, or a group may say something about race. I think abortion and religion are likely to be issues in the last week, especially with the Palin candidacy.
OVERBY: The reason for these last-minute, below-the-radar attacks and all that preceded them?
Dr. MAGLEBY: I think it goes way beyond whether you like Obama or McCain to ideology and agenda-setting.
OVERBY: There are simply too many people with too much at stake to let the attacks go unmade. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: If you can't get enough of the ads on TV, you can watch some of them and learn more about independent groups on our Secret Money blog at npr.org. It is part of the Secret Money Project, which is very public. It's a collaboration of NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
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