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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning. You may have noticed this election season is missing something that we had a lot of four years ago. Independent groups with a major impact putting out a lot of ads, or much-noticed ads, like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. That group played a prominent role in attacking Democratic candidate John Kerry in 2004. This time, outside groups didn't really catch on. NPR's Peter Overby has the story.

PETER OVERBY: If these groups didn't score big headlines, it wasn't for lack of trying. Even yesterday there was no let-up. Let's start at the National Press Club, sort of ground zero for Washington press conferences. Two groups were there with simultaneous conferences.

Mr. STEVE KEST (Executive Director, ACORN): We see voter intimidation. We see a huge problem with these no match, no vote laws.

OVERBY: That was Steve Kest. He's executive director of ACORN, the community organizing group. It's fighting back against Republican accusations that it's stuffing the voter rolls with non-existent people. Kest was in one room announcing lawsuits and a new cable TV ad.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Announcer #1: Tell John McCain, not this time. ACORN. Voting is your right. Protecting it is our job. The association...

OVERBY: Out the door and down the hall was the America Deserves Better PAC, unveiling what it called a final ad blitz to defeat Obama. This event was actually more of a campaign rally. The main speaker was Sacramento radio host, Mark Williams.

Mr. MARK WILLIAMS (Radio Host, Sacramento): We are the shining city on the hill. And there are those around Barack Obama who would like to extinguish those lights. We're not going to let that happen.

OVERBY: But the group's blitz turned out to be one new ad. Nobody could say if America Deserves Better has the money to put it on the air. Things deteriorated as Williams got into an argument with a woman who supported Obama. She walked out, and Williams called after her.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Excuse me, ma'am. I paid you the courtesy. You can pay me the courtesy, too, you very rude old lady.

OVERBY: And so it's gone with the independent voices in the presidential campaign: accusations, a fair amount of name calling, but not enough money. Some wealthy donors were put off by the complexity of campaign finance law. But mainly, the problem was here.

(Soundbite of news broadcasts)

Unidentified Reporter #1: That sent the Dow industrials into a breathtaking plunge. By the time the market

Unidentified Reporter #2: Stocks nosedived in their biggest sell-off in 21 years. People on the street...

Unidentified Reporter #3: A history-making 777-point nosedive...

OVERBY: After that, wealthy donors didn't have so much wealth. Take American Issues Project. One donor gave nearly $3 million for this ad last August linking Barack Obama with former militant Bill Ayers.

(Soundbite of American Issues Project campaign ad)

Unidentified Announcer #2: Why would Barack Obama be friends with someone who bombed the Capitol and is proud of it?

Mr. CHRIS LACIVITA (Strategist, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth): We were the first to broach the topic and push it.

OVERBY: Chris LaCivita from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth produced the ad for American Issues Project. He says they had more ideas for going after Obama. Unlike four years ago, they were stymied.

Mr. LACIVITA: We started a conversation that a lot of people recognized had an impact, but if you don't have the resources to keep the conversation going, it kind of makes it hard.

OVERBY: And even if the money is there, this sort of attack ad may not work as well as it used to. A veteran of liberal groups, Tom Matzzie, says these ads can't get a good media ride any more thanks to Internet-based fact checking.

Mr. TOM MATZZIE (Head, Accountable America): The Swift Boaters of the future are not going to be broad spectrum. They're going to be narrow cast, is my view.

OVERBY: That is aimed at demographic niche groups where they might not draw so much scrutiny. Matzzie says this year's success stories are low-profile, state-level groups.

Mr. MATZZIE: But before the campaigns themselves start spending money, it helps to have someone else out there stoking the fires to keep the issue debate in a good place.

OVERBY: So months and months ago, Progress Now and its state affiliate started building grassroots networks, laying the groundwork for a Democratic campaign. Republicans don't have any counterpart to this, so far that is. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: NPR and the Center for Investigative Reporting have tracked dozens of independent groups throughout the campaign. You can read more about it and see some of their ads at the "Secret Money Project" at npr.org.

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