OSKALOOSA, IOWA — The Democratic presidential race heated up Saturday, with Barack Obama charging that rival John Edwards committed campaign hypocrisy by deriding political organizations called 527s at the same time he allegedly will benefit from their spending.
Stumping in central Iowa three days before Christmas, Obama described the former North Carolina senator as "a good man," and said both agreed that special interests and lobbyists "have too much influence in Washington."
Yet, the Illinois senator said, it was learned Saturday that even as Edwards was calling for a ban on spending by such outside groups, one was planning to spend $750,000 on television ads in Iowa in support of his campaign.
On Friday, at a campaign stop in Johnston, Edwards slammed these groups. He has often said they ought to be banned from influencing elections.
"You can't say yesterday you don't believe in them, and today you have three-quarters of a million dollars being spent for you," Obama said.
According to the Obama campaign, one of the officers of the independent group supporting Edwards is Nicholas R. Baldick, Edwards' national campaign manager in the 2004 presidential race. Efforts Saturday to reach Baldick were unsuccessful.
David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, said the 527 group known as Alliance for a New America just bought $756,000 worth of air time to run ads in Iowa from Wednesday to Jan. 3, the date of the caucuses.
"These things are supposed to be independent," Axelrod said. "How independent are they when you have your longtime operative running it? Pure and simple, it's a way of circumventing the campaign-finance laws."
The ads are scheduled to run in several Iowa markets, with the heaviest concentrations in Sioux City and Des Moines. After being questioned by reporters later in the day, Edwards called on Baldick "not to run the ads."
"I would prefer if all the 527s, not just this one, that all 527s stay out of Iowa," he said.
The Alliance for a New America's purpose, according to its lean website, is to "make Washington work for middle-class families."
"We are encouraging voters to ask the candidates how they will make the middle class and working Americans their top priority in Washington, while ensuring that special interests and corporate America lose their stranglehold on our government," the website says.
In filings with the Federal Election Commission, Alliance for a New America reported receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from organized labor -- largely state and local branches of the Service Employees International Union, including the California chapter. And the documents say that the group is spending the money on broadcast ads on behalf of Edwards.
In Iowa, SEIU officials and members are routinely seen cheering for Edwards at campaign events. On Saturday, the president of the largest SEIU local chapter in Iowa (which is not among those funding the ads) introduced Edwards to hundreds of supporters in a steamy Coralville ballroom.
Edwards on Saturday initially denounced secretive support organizations, but said he was forbidden by federal elections law from communicating or interfering with such groups. He used the opportunity to poke at his rivals for accepting lobbyists' donations.
"If Sen. Obama is serious about real change, I hope he and Sen. [Hillary Rodham] Clinton will finally end their silence and join with me in calling on the Democratic Party to end the influence of Washington lobbyists by once and for all rejecting their money," he said in a written statement Saturday morning.
But after a reporter reminded Edwards in the afternoon that he had urged President Bush to call off the "Swift Boat" attack ads against Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry in 2004, Edwards urged the Alliance for a New America to abandon its plans to run the ads.
In New Hampshire, after autographing baseballs, books and business cards at Milford's River House Cafe, Clinton told reporters she wasn't going to jump into the sparring match between Obama and Edwards.
Both men have been trying to claim the mantle of political purity, each arguing that he is the best man to change the political culture in Washington. Obama's events are often festooned with signs boasting "Not paid for by PAC or federal lobbyist money." The rear of Edwards' "Main Street Express" bus reads "Not Fueled by PACs or Washington Lobbyists EVER."
Saturday's exchange was the sharpest direct engagement of the campaign between Obama and Edwards.
After a packed stump speech at a Lisbon school, Edwards said Obama's sudden attention was prompted by Edwards' growing momentum in Iowa.
"You can see it in the energy and enthusiasm of the events, you can see it in the size of the crowds, and I see it when people come to me after the event, as they did 15 minutes ago, and said, 'I came here for Obama; [now] I'm for you, I'm committing right now,' " Edwards said. "I know that we're moving, and Sen. Obama's comments this morning and over the last few days would indicate he knows the same thing."
At a tea-and-pumpkin-pie stop in Pleasantville, Obama was asked by reporters whether he was suddenly concerned about Edwards because he went after the former North Carolina senator at the first event of the day.
"We feel great," he responded. "And you're seeing it in the crowds, you can see confirmation. . . . I think everyone knows this is going to be a close race."
La Ganga reported from Oskaloosa; Mehta from Coralville. Times staff writer Maeve Reston in Milford, N.H., contributed to this report.