WASHINGTON — Three advertising campaigns by political groups harshly critical of President Bush are getting under way in 17 states, in an effort to counter Republican commercials that began showing last week.
The largest campaign opens on Wednesday, paid with $5 million in unlimited donations that political parties can no longer collect. Republicans say the tactic is an illegal way to support Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, contending that it violates campaign finance laws.
Stepping in to help Mr. Kerry's campaign offset what has been Mr. Bush's 10-to-1 fund-raising advantage, these groups are part of a handful of committees that some critics call a "shadow" political party.
The MoveOn.org Voter Fund began its advertising campaign against President Bush last week, raising issues of job losses.
The groups, two of which say they already have a total of $70 million in pledges, have moved to set up expansive voter drives while at the same time fighting the president on television using issues like jobs, the deficit and health care policy.
The advertising campaign beginning on Wednesday goes so far as to hit the president with a broadside, saying that "George Bush's priorities are eroding the American dream." This campaign, run by Harold M. Ickes, the former deputy White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, comes just days after Mr. Bush went on the air with his own $11 million ad campaign.
It also comes as President Bush has begun leading an orchestrated barrage of Republican criticism of Mr. Kerry intended to undercut him and define him as a waffler who is weak on security issues. The attacks are coming from an array of Republican elected officials and are to be amplified by an imminent sweep of hard-hitting television advertisements.
Mr. Kerry's advisers say they welcome harsh critiques of the president being broadcast by Democrats. But there is concern that because federal rules forbid the campaign or the Democratic Party to coordinate with these groups, the independent advertising could at times run counter to Mr. Kerry's own themes. "If their first flight of TV ads goes up and they are terrible and off-message, that would be a problem," a Kerry adviser said. "But it's a problem we can't do anything about."
On Tuesday night, Mr. Bush's campaign lawyers said they had filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission saying some of these commercials are illegal because they effectively oppose Mr. Bush, and were paid for with unlimited or "soft money" donations, which they say is a violation of campaign finance laws. They are calling for an investigation into Mr. Ickes's group, the Media Fund. "This is a blatant violation," said Tom Josefiak, Mr. Bush's general counsel.
Mr. Ickes calls those accusations baseless, saying: "Politically, we are trying to really highlight, underscore and push into sharp focus the policies of the Republicans. That may have a certain effect on the Bush or the Kerry campaign, but we are not involved in electing or defeating people. We are raising issues."
The debate over what these groups can legally do dates back to last year. Republicans in Congress have investigated them while other Republicans have appealed to the Federal Election Commission. But when it issued an advisory opinion last month, the commission put off any final decision until later this year, and its members have a full range of alternatives before them.
Several Republican officials said they would be watching closely for illegal coordination between the Kerry campaign and these groups. Officials with the groups said in interviews that they were keeping their distance from the Kerry campaign, and that they were by no means working in coordination with it.
"Everyone here is abiding by the prohibition against coordination with the campaign or party committees," said Jim Jordan, who was forced out as Mr. Kerry's campaign manager in the fall and who is now a consultant to Mr. Ickes's Media Fund.
Mr. Bush is getting his own outside help — from Republican and conservative groups — though not nearly at Mr. Kerry's level. One group, called Citizens United and headed by a former Republican Congressional aide who investigated President Clinton's 1996 fund-raising, David N. Bossie, began advertising this week. Mr. Bossie would say only that the ad campaign was costing in the low six figures. Another conservative group, Club for Growth, is expected to run advertisements against Mr. Kerry soon.
For their part, the fund-raising groups helping Mr. Kerry say they plan to continue their campaigns until an election commission ruling says otherwise. Already, the groups have brought together some of the best organizers in their fields. And some are literally under the same roof in a building just blocks from the White House.
For example, Ellen Malcolm founded Emily's List, the powerful abortion-rights political action committee. Steve Rosenthal was the top political organizer for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the largest labor organization in the country. The two teamed up to form America Coming Together, commonly known as ACT, an organization that is building a vast voter outreach network in the 17 battleground states.
The group is recruiting an army of people like Sean McDonald, a 31-year-old who left his job installing carpet to make $8 an hour as a door knocker in Massillon, Ohio, near his hometown, Canton. The goal is simple: Find out what issues are on the minds of potential voters.
At some houses, he thrusts a palm computer in the door to show a 16-second video clip of a steelworker talking about losing his job. It is an icebreaker, and Mr. McDonald dutifully records the answers.
Ultimately, the information he collects is fed into ACT computers to create a huge database of potential voters who can now be singled out according to their interests. In the months ahead, the organization will hit these voters with mail, telephone calls and perhaps a few more knocks on the door.
ACT has become the best known of all of these fund-raising groups, known as 527 committees, for the part of the Tax Code that established them. It often captures headlines, like the time George Soros, the financier and a major Democratic donor, pledged $10 million.
The Media Fund anticipated that the Democratic nominee would emerge with little money only to face Mr. Bush, who has more than $100 million banked.
ACT and the Media Fund, raising money jointly, say they have pledges for $70 million, far more than campaign finance reports show they had in December.
The Media Fund's advertising campaign comes on top of two others that began late last week, at the same time that Mr. Bush's first advertisements hit the air in the 17 states expected to be the most closely contested, among them Florida, Ohio, Arizona and Nevada.
One campaign, by a Democratic advocacy group called the New Democrat Network, includes two Spanish-language advertisements that accuse Mr. Bush of letting down Latinos. The group, which has the former Clinton housing secretary Henry Cisneros on its advisory board and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico as another adviser, said it was paying $5 million to run spots through Labor Day in cities with large Spanish-speaking populations like Orlando, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Las Vegas. In one of the spots an announcer says in Spanish: "When he wanted to reach the White House, George Bush promised to be a friend of the Latino community and do what's best for our children. He has not kept his promise."
The MoveOn.org Voter Fund, which has been running commercials against Mr. Bush for months now, began one of its biggest campaigns yet on Thursday, paying about $3 million for two weeks of ads against the president in all 17 states where he is advertising. In most of those states the group is running a new spot in which a visibly beaten-down factory worker laments job losses and proposed limits to overtime pay and says, "Face it, George Bush is not on our side."
Mr. Ickes says his organization coordinates with the MoveOn.org Voter Fund and the New Democrat Network in choosing which media markets to cover. "The object is to make sure we stretch resources as far as possible," he said.
Mr. Ickes said his organization, which used soft money to finance the 30-second spots that began this week, hoped to continue advertising in the weeks ahead.
"It will really be a function of money," he said.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company