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Outside Cash Leaves Scorched Earth in US Campaign

by Stephen Collinson

WASHINGTON — Nerve jarring music races to a crescendo, shadowy pictures flash across the screen, and in doom-laden tones, a narrator warns: "Obama -- he promised change... now he's desperate, on the attack."

This image from the Americans for Prosperity website is called "obama_sinister.jpg". Expensive, bombastic political ads are hardly new to American politics, but independent groups - not openly linked to the political parties - can now suck up unlimited corporate cash, and spill it on elections, without revealing the source of their largesse. (Original image source: unknown) This is not the inspirational candidate who moved thousands to tears at his Chicago victory party, nor the one who tilted at history with the most impressive legislative record of any Democratic president for decades.

This is President Barack Obama through the eyes of "Americans for Prosperity," a group lambasted by Democrats since a Supreme Court decision opened a spigot of outside spending on next month's mid-term elections.

Expensive, bombastic political ads are hardly new to American politics -- both sides of the political aisle fling half truths and explosive claims across television screens every election season.

But Democrats, fearing heavy losses in Congress due to the sluggish economic rebound and high unemployment, are crying foul this year, after the Court rulings dismantled a raft of restrictions on corporate spending.

Independent groups -- not openly linked to the political parties -- can now suck up unlimited corporate cash, and spill it on elections, without revealing the source of their largesse.

Conservative groups currently dominate the spending binge -- profiting from Republican grass roots anger over the Obama administration ahead of November 2 polls in which Democrats fear heavy losses.

The Americans For Prosperity ad is, in fact, a riposte to Obama's own claims that no one knows who the group is or how it is financed.

"Who is he afraid of? Americans For Prosperity? People like you?" the hard-hitting ad run by the activist group says.

Research by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending, shows conservative independent groups have splashed out 25.8 million dollars on advertising since September 1, compared to 5.6 million dollars by liberal groups.

Detractors argue that the benign names of some groups, like "Americans for Prosperity," "Americans for Job Security" and "Working America" belie the nakedly partisan nature of their advertising.

"You know, they call themselves 'Americans for Apple Pie' or 'Moms for Motherhood' -- and then they use their voice to drown out yours," Obama quipped in September.

Under campaign finance laws, corporations or individuals are limited in how much they can give each candidate -- but since the Supreme Court ruling, there are no such curbs on how much a group can spend on ads under its own banner.

This Democrats say, is unfair and means big corporations can remain anonymous and swamp the voice of the average voter at the polls.

Republicans charge corporations as well as individuals have a right to free speech, and point to heavy labor union financing of Democratic campaigns.

In Nevada, Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid is desperately trying to cling on to his seat, against Republican Sharron Angle, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement.

American Crossroads, a group for which former George W. Bush political guru Karl Rove raises money, has stepped in with a hard-hitting ad.

Shots of the Democratic veteran are juxtaposed with a lacerating script: "Bailouts, deficits, Obamacare... haven't you done enough?"

Though such ads steal headlines, David Damore, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas said the group's work on the Republican ground game may actually have more impact than the air war.

"Rove's group is doing a lot of turnout -- there is a real Republican disadvantage (in that area) in the state right now," Damore said.

Some experts believe independent groups may be most effective in House races where electorates are smaller and a sudden cash boost can tilt the scales.

In Virginia, Democrat Rick Boucher is in danger of losing a seat he has held for years. He is known as a conservative Democrat but Americans for Job Security is shackling him to House speaker Nancy Pelosi, a hate figure for Republicans.

"Boucher has failed to protect our jobs -- now it is time Rick Boucher loses his," an ad says.

AJS describes itself on its website as an "independent, bi-partisan, pro-business issue advocacy organization" but does not disclose donors, saying its membership could be misinterpreted by politicians or the media.

In its counter attack, the White House has highlighted the reports that the US Chamber of Commerce, which leans Republican, has used funds from foreign funds for electoral campaigning.

The Chamber denies the charges, but the White House is demanding proof.

Rove has also weighed in: "This is a desperate and I think disturbing trend by the president of the United States to tar his political adversaries with some kind of enemies list," he told Fox News Sunday.

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