Reporting from Washington — An early television war fueled by independent groups is poised to shape the focus and landscape of the 2012 presidential race much as "tea-party"-backed organizations helped set the stage for Republican victories in 2010.
This summer — a full 16 months before the general election — television viewers across the country are already confronting hard-hitting commercials jousting over President Obama's record on the economy. Such political ads are usually confined to places such as Iowa and New Hampshire at this point in the race.
The ads aren't the work of the president's reelection campaign or the Republicans jockeying to run against him — they are the product of a new breed of well-funded outside groups seeking to define the contours of the 2012 campaign.
One of the biggest, Crossroads GPS, has pledged to spend $20 million in television advertising in July and August alone.
"I supported President Obama because he spoke so beautifully, but since then, things have gone from bad to much worse," says the character of a worried mom in the group's latest spot, running nationally on cable as well as on broadcast stations in six states.
Rising to Obama's defense is a new group called Priorities USA Action, which fired back with a five-state ad buy costing roughly $750,000. It argued that "Republicans have opposed economic reforms at every turn."
Both groups went head-to-head this month in cities such as Raleigh, N.C. — the earliest debut ever of ads related to the presidential race in that market, said Steven Hammel, general manager of local station WRAL-TV. In the 2008 campaign, the first TV spots aired in March of that year, eight months later in the election cycle.
By running the spots now in places such as North Carolina, Colorado and Virginia, the organizations hope to soften those key swing states for the general election.
The efforts by these independent groups — many of them so-called super PACS, which can raise unlimited amounts of money — come just as GOP presidential hopefuls such as Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty have launched their own upbeat ads to introduce themselves to Iowa voters. Those could be overshadowed by the sharper-edged messages emanating from the outside organizations, which — prohibited from coordinating with candidates or political parties — tend to punch harder.
"These groups have made campaigns longer, more ideological and a little more muddled in the sense that no longer are the big megaphones with the candidates and the parties, but with these groups," said Frank Donatelli, a longtime Republican advisor and former deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee.
That was the case in the recent contest to fill former Rep. Jane Harman's South Bay seat. Last month, a new super PAC called Turn Right USA posted a raunchy Web video saying Democrat Janice Hahn had assisted active gang members, a story that came to dominate the race before Hahn's victory Tuesday.
Turn Right USA is one of more than 100 super PACs created in the last year, the result of federal court rulings that overturned restrictions on political spending by corporations and unions. An untold number of other organizations have formed as tax-exempt social welfare groups, which are supposed to devote only a portion of their activities to politics.
Paul Begala, a senior advisor to Priorities USA Action, which was set up by two former Obama aides, admitted that if he were working for a political candidate, he wouldn't welcome the new arrivals.
"When you run a campaign, you want to control the discussion," said Begala, who was a key member of Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign team. But he's blunt about hoping that his group contradicts the GOP candidates' warmly lit bio spots: "I hope we interrupt some of the happy horse hockey," he said.
Yet it remains to be seen whether new pro-Democratic groups such as his will be able to compete with the array of GOP-allied organizations that began operating in the 2010 cycle. Crossroads GPS and its sister organization American Crossroads are expected to have an even bigger presence in 2012, pledging to spend $120 million altogether to advance Republican goals. Priorities USA — which, like Crossroads, has separate super PAC and nonprofit arms — has raised between $4 million and $5 million so far.
Priorities USA is working with another group, American Bridge 21st Century, which has cast itself as the opposition research shop for independent groups on the left. The organization has already hired 20 researchers and 12 trackers who are following and recording Republican candidates as they stump around the country.