Outside a South Carolina barbecue joint Monday afternoon, former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., called the ad "outrageous" and said, "MoveOn.org has today, in effect, said that the General leading our brave troops in Iraq is betraying his country. This is the group that funds the Democratic Party. all upon the Democratic Party and all of the Democratic candidates for President to repudiate the libel of this patriotic American."
But Democrats said doing so would be falling into a GOP trap and criticized Republicans for trying to change the subject from the substance of Petraeus's testimony.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said while the ad gave Republicans "a new talking point," Reid would not be decrying the ad.
"They have every right to buy an ad in The New York Times," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. "The issue isn't Gen. Petraeus, who's a good man and a fine soldier. The problem is that he is being brought in during the fourth quarter and the administration is trying to give him ownership of the entire game. They cannot deflect responsibility like this. The American people know how we got to this point and know that it is time to change course."
Asked if they would condemn the MoveOn.org ad, the Democratic presidential frontrunners all demurred but tellingly, all of them refrained from criticizing Gen. Petraeus personally.
"Sen. Obama's question is not about General Petraeus's patriotism," said Bill Burton, spokesman for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. "It's about his logic. There's no evidence that this surge is producing the political progress needed to resolve the civil war in Iraq, or that it will be accomplished through more of the same.
Phil Singer, spokesman for the campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, said that "America's troops have done all that has been asked of them and then some, but the reality is that there is no military solution to what is going on in Iraq which is why our focus must remain on getting the president to change course."
As for the ad, Singer said, "It is unfortunate that Republican presidential candidates are focused on generating a political sideshow instead of discussing the President's failed war policy. Sen. Clinton is going to keep her focus where it should be, on ending the war."
Eric Schultz, spokesman for the campaign of former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said that "Sen. Edwards honors General Petraeus's service and patriotism, but the General is wrong to believe that the American people or Congress should give President Bush's failed Iraq strategy more time. John Edwards believes Congress should stand firm and hold President Bush responsible for changing course with a simple and strong message -- no timetable, no funding, no excuses."
MoveOn.org says it stands by its ad.
"Every major independent study and many major news organizations cast serious doubt on Petraeus' claims," said Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org's political action committee. Pariser said recent studies by the Government Accountability Office, the National Intelligence Estimate and retired Marine Gen. James Jones contradict any assertions that the surge has been a success.
"Gen. Petraeus' claims have come under critical scrutiny," Pariser said. "The facts all point in one direction — the surge isn't working — and Gen. Petraeus and the White House are pointing in another."