Mitt Romney is disavowing a plan by some wealthy Republicans to attack President Obama for ties to his controversial former pastor. Even the people behind that proposal said they are abandoning it after their idea was plastered on the front page of The New York Times.
The proposal centered on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who was a mentor to Obama before the two parted ways during the last presidential campaign.
Republicans unaffiliated with Romney were considering spending $10 million on a racially tinged advertising campaign tying Wright to the president.
In Florida on Thursday, Romney disapproved of the plan: “I hope that our campaigns can respectively be about the future and about issues and about a vision for America.”
By the time Romney said that, even the people funding the advertising plan had abandoned the idea. And Democrats were pointing out that Romney had already brought Wright into the campaign.
Romney was asked whether he stands by his comments about Wright made in February.
“I’m not familiar precisely with exactly what I said, but I stand by what I said, whatever it was,” Romney answered.
This is what he said on Sean Hannity’s radio show: “I’m not sure which is worse, him [Obama] listening to Rev. Wright or him saying that we must be a less Christian nation.”
Strategists in both parties doubt that even a huge advertising campaign focused on Wright could redefine Obama at this point in his presidency.
“There’s always something else to know, but usually in the minds of the electorate, they have a fixed idea about the president by this time,” says David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University who also advises Republican candidates.
Even if the content of this proposal is dead for now, the concept illuminates something new in 2012.
Since the Supreme Court opened the doors to unlimited spending by outside parties, any billionaire with an idea can try to tilt the scales. And they may do things the campaigns disapprove of.
Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak warns that edgy attacks bordering on the personal can always backfire.
“I don’t think professional operatives who have a reputation, who’ve been in politics for a long time, would engage in anything that would do themselves reputational damage,” Mackowiak says. “The Jeremiah Wright thing, particularly in light of the, I think, of the response that the effort’s gotten, would lead me to think that they might want to think twice about it.”
To Democrat Bill Burton, going personal is just not worth the risk. Like all independent groups, his superPAC Priorities USA is banned from coordinating with the campaign, but he does not plan to stray far from the Obama playbook.
“You hear a lot of this: ‘Don’t you have to fight fire with fire?’ Actually you fight fire with water. And we think if we can tell the truth, if we can be factual about Mitt Romney’s record and Mitt Romney’s catastrophic vision for this country, then President Obama will be re-elected.”
There are, however, free agents who are not nearly as close to the campaign as Burton is to the White House.
Neera Tanden of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund says billionaires with a cause are already influencing this presidential race.
“They’re literally flooding the airwaves with negative information that is really determining who is winning primaries, at least in the Republican side,” Tanden says.
But are there as many Democratic billionaires willing to dump that kind of money into attack ads as there are Republican billionaires?
“Not at all,” Tanden says. “Many progressives are worried that they’ll be unarmed on the Democratic side.”
It’s a furious arms race, with the weapons already being fired.