Despite Claim, No Major 527 Group Against Obama Sen. Barack Obama this week blamed his decision to reject public financing on 527 groups that work on behalf of John McCain. Jonathan Martin of Politico says there really aren't any major 527s working against Obama. Michele Norris talks to Martin.
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Despite Claim, No Major 527 Group Against Obama

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Despite Claim, No Major 527 Group Against Obama

Despite Claim, No Major 527 Group Against Obama

Despite Claim, No Major 527 Group Against Obama

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Sen. Barack Obama this week blamed his decision to reject public financing on 527 groups that work on behalf of John McCain. Jonathan Martin of Politico says there really aren't any major 527s working against Obama. Michele Norris talks to Martin.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Barack Obama announced this week that he's going back on a pledge to use public financing for his presidential campaign. His reasoning: that the system has been undermined by a whole crowd of 527 groups working on behalf of his opponent, John McCain. 527s are outside organizations that can accept unlimited donations. The problem with Obama's argument is that, as of now, there really aren't any major anti-Obama 527s out there. That's according to reporter Jonathan Martin, who writes the story in today's Politico Web site. Jonathan joins me in the studio. Jonathan, there really are not any GOP 527 groups right now?

Mr. JONATHAN MARTIN (Politico): Well, right now there is a real bleak landscape, if you are a Republican and you believe that it's essential to have a third party organization out there to defeat Barack Obama. There is no Swift Boat operation right now. It's just not happening. Now, every Republican that I talked to for this story, and I talked to probably 15, they all believe that something is going to happen at some point. But the problem is, when you press them, they can't offer anything up as to who's going to pay for such a group or who's going to run it.

NORRIS: Now, you mentioned that there are no Swift Boat operations.

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

NORRIS: The Swift Boat operation being the group that went after John Kerry, questioned his military service...

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

NORRIS: ...to the degree that Swift Boat almost became a verb.

Mr. MARTIN: That's right.

NORRIS: It worked very well for the third party operatives in the last election...

Mr. MARTIN: Right.

NORRIS: ...so why aren't there more of these groups out there?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, because McCain has stated publicly that he does not want them out there. He's the father of campaign finance reform. So there's hesitation on behalf of the party. A couple more reasons: first of all, since 2004 and the Swift Boaters there have been steps taken by the Federal Election Commission that makes it harder to air those kind of advertisements that are about character and not about issues.

But also I think because there is a hesitation to go after Barack Obama on some of these issues like Reverend Jeremiah Wright, because if you are an operative and you are a major donor and your name is going to be out there, you risk being identified with going after the first African-American presidential candidate in the history of the country, and if it even approaches the race question, that is toxic.

NORRIS: So the air has gone out of the system on the 527s on the GOP side. What about on the Democratic side?

Mr. MARTIN: Well, I'm glad you asked about that. There's been less activity also on the Democratic side. It's the Swift Boaters that we sort of look back on as the chief third party culprit, if you will, in 2004, and for good reason; they played a huge role taking down John Kerry. What we often forget is Democratic third party groups actually spend far more money than the Swift Boaters ever did. There are some liberal leaning groups out there still. MoveOn.org, for example. But Obama himself, like McCain, has made plain he does not want to have these third party groups involved.

NORRIS: Now MoveOn.org, you mentioned, that is a group that had been strongly supporting Barack Obama; they say that they're planning to close their 527s.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, they are but what's important to recognize about that is that they're not closing down their PAC. The bottom line here, they're going to have a third party organization raising money attacking John McCain.

NORRIS: So Barack Obama announced this week and his justification for that, saying that he's doing it because 527s have changed the system. Does this argument make sense? Does it hold water?

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, I think it was pretty rich for him to say that he was not taking public dollars because there were these big bad GOP groups waiting in the wings to spend millions of dollars. The bottom line is that of course he can raise hundreds of millions of dollars, so why would he try and restrict himself? There are some who will say it would be malpractice on the part of his advisers if he had done anything else. And I think ultimately for him to get a couple of days' bad press in June and to be tut-tutted by the Washington Post and the New York Times is far outweighed by having millions of dollars in October to be able to inundate 35, 40 states.

NORRIS: Thanks so much.

Mr. MARTIN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Jonathan Martin is with Politico. He joined us here in our studio. Thanks, Jonathan.

Mr. MARTIN: Thank you.

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Obama Puts Faith in Army of Individual Donors

Obama Puts Faith in Army of Individual Donors

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The match between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain is shaping up as the most unevenly financed presidential race since 1972.

That's the year that Richard Nixon ran for re-election, raised unprecedented sums of money and spawned the campaign scandals that led Congress to enact public financing.

Obama announced on Thursday that he won't take public funds for the general-election campaign. McCain says he will. McCain will get more than $84 million from the government for the two-month fall campaign. But Obama's turbo-charged fundraising operation can leave that in the dust.

Obama will be the first candidate of either party ever to turn down public money for the fall campaign. He's counting on his new, Internet-driven strategies for raising cash.

"We've won the Democratic nomination by relying on ordinary people coming together to achieve extraordinary things," he told supporters in a video Thursday.

That's true of Obama's 1.5 million donors today. But Fred Wertheimer, head of the watchdog group Democracy 21, says it didn't start out that way.

In 2007, when Sen. Obama was raising the money that was essential for him to become a serious candidate, "54 percent of his contributions came in contributions of a thousand dollars or more, and much of that money was raised by bundlers," he says

Bundlers are people who solicit friends and colleagues for checks that they bundle for delivery to the campaign. Wertheimer says Obama wouldn't be where he is without them.

"He has not created a parallel system of public financing," he says.

But Obama has created by far the largest system of small, voluntary donors that American politics has ever seen. It's changing the landscape for 2008 and beyond.

On Thursday, McCain immediately accused Obama of breaking his word. McCain's campaign said Obama had promised to negotiate with McCain so that they'd both take public money and limit spending by their national party committees.

Obama's people said McCain had played the primary public financing system to get a four-month head start and also unleashed independent groups to run attack ads against Obama.

Bradley Smith, a past chairman of the Federal Election Commission, says they're both putting a principled face on a stark reality.

"[Obama's] not taking the government money because he can raise a lot of private money and outspend John McCain. And anything else he says is just political claptrap," Smith says. "I don't blame him for that any more than I blame John McCain. Same thing. John McCain is taking the government money because it is the best deal for him to compete in this election."

Whoever wins in November, advocates of public financing say they'll lobby Congress next year to fix the system. And both candidates do have legislative records in support of public financing.

But Smith is skeptical.

"There will be no clamor whatsoever from the American people to have more of their tax dollars spent on political campaigns," he says.

Smith and others also ask whether public financing is still relevant. They point to Obama's armies of small donors and to the independent groups that are increasingly aggressive in campaigns.

One example from this week: MoveOn.org and the public employees union AFSCME put up an anti-McCain ad featuring a young mother holding up her baby and saying: "John McCain, when you say you would stay in Iraq for 100 years, were you counting on Alex? Because if you were, you can't have him."

A week's worth of airtime cost $543,000.

Nothing in the public financing law would help either McCain or Obama counter ads like that.