Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips, pictured in 2010, says:… (Mark Welsh, Arlington Heights…)
WASHINGTON — A hard-hitting commercial blasting President Obama's stimulus spending as a "failure" flooded television sets last week in eight swing states that will be decisive in November's presidential election.
It was not the product of presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney, nor of the national Republican Party. Instead, it was made by Americans for Prosperity, a Virginia-based nonprofit that for months has poured millions into anti-Obama commercials. Its latest buy totaled $6.1 million in airtime.
On Tuesday, Obama's campaign responded with a tough ad of its own that not only raps Mitt Romney for his now-closed Swiss bank account but also takes a thinly veiled swipe at Americans for Prosperity's on-air attacks.
The exchange crystallizes the state of play in the presidential campaign. As the general election campaign begins in earnest, the Obama camp increasingly must respond not only to Romney but to independent groups that, backed by business interests and wealthy donors, are taking to the airwaves.
In his ad, Obama decries "over the top" attacks from "Big Oil" — a reference to Americans for Prosperity and its support from the conservative Koch brothers, whose privately held company has stakes in oil refineries and pipelines, among other industries.
Americans for Prosperity is part of a fleet of conservative independent groups financing a relentless stream of television commercials in presidential battleground states such as Florida, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia.
The groups' ads provide valuable air cover for the Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee as they scramble to raise campaign funds and put together a field operation to take on Obama's mammoth organization.
"We're going to spend tens of millions in this period, when the campaign and the party committees aren't fully ready to take over," said Tim Phillips, the group's president. He said the nonprofit did not coordinate its advocacy agenda with the Romney campaign or the Republican Party.
Democratic-aligned independent groups are coming to Obama's defense, though so far they have not been able to flex as much muscle.
But as the campaign grinds on, the groups on both sides will seek to frame the debate on some of the most contentious issues facing the electorate.
Americans for Prosperity plans to pour $151 million into television and field operations during this campaign, with 80% of its TV budget to be spent before Labor Day. It will continue to pound Obama on the failed solar energy company Solyndra, seeking to tie the administration's green-energy initiatives to cronyism and waste. It will also target the healthcare overhaul.
If the organization does its job well this spring, Phillips said, by summer voters will view Obama "as just another big Washington guy."
It may seem early in the campaign for such brutal on-air engagements, but leading Republicans say this period is crucial; they expect Obama to use the time to undercut his rival.
"The time to really try to run down the Republican — carpet-bomb him — is about to start," former GOP Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi told reporters last week at a breakfast hosted by Resurgent Republic, a conservative public opinion group.
Romney's campaign has yet to air a general election ad. In recent weeks, he has leapfrogged across the country raising money, with stops in North Carolina, New York and Connecticut.
In past elections, it would largely fall to the national party committees to keep up attacks while a presumptive nominee raised cash for the general election. The Republican National Committee plans to have some advertising in coming months, spokesman Sean Spicer said, but "not anywhere near the dollar amount of the outside groups."
Still, Spicer insisted that the organizations were not supplanting the role of the RNC, which is the only entity that is allowed to coordinate with the campaign on identifying voters and getting them to the polls. The party's top goals right now are to build up its field and political operations and to sock away money for the GOP nominee to use later in the year, he said.
"The more they are involved in putting ads on the air, that's great for us," Spicer said. "It's like having another player on the field."
The pro-Obama "super PAC" Priorities USA Action, run by two former White House staffers, jumped into the fray last week with a $1-million buy in Nevada and Colorado, jointly funded by the environmental group League of Conservation Voters Action Fund.
Senior strategist Bill Burton said the super PAC was seeking not only to tie Romney to the oil industry but "to answer what the opponents of the president are putting on TV in order to attack him and lie about his record."