Republicans revulsed from the news Thursday that a GOP Super PAC was contemplating a major ad campaign against President Obama focused on his past connections to the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg reported that a group of Republican strategists, including Fred Davis who worked for McCain in 2008, would try to "do exactly what John McCain would not let us do" - run TV ads linking President Obama to provocative comments made by Wright, whom then-Sen. Obama disowned in 2008 after decades of friendship. The Super PAC is funded by Joe Ricketts, founder of the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade.
"The world is about to see Jeremiah Wright and understand his influence on Barack Obama for the first time in a big, attention-arresting way," says the proposal, titled "The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: The Ricketts Plan to End His Spending for Good." "Our plan is to do exactly what John McCain would not let us do: Show the world how Barack Obama's opinions of America and the world were formed. And why the influence of that misguided mentor and our president's formative years among left-wing intellectuals has brought our country to its knees."
The Romney and McCain campaigns made it immediately clear that they thought this proposal not a good one.
In a statement, Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades, said, "Unlike the Obama campaign, Gov. Romney is running a campaign based on jobs and the economy, and we encourage everyone else to do the same. President Obama's team said they would 'kill Romney,' and, just last week, David Axelrod referred to individuals opposing the president as 'contract killers.' It's clear President Obama's team is running a campaign of character assassination. We repudiate any efforts on our side to do so."
(Mr. Romney himself hasn't always begged off addressing this issue. Appearing on Sean Hannity's Radio Show in February, Romney said, "I think again that the president takes his philosophical leanings in this regard, not from those who are ardent believers in various faiths but instead from those who would like America to be more secular. And I'm not sure which is worse, him listening to Reverend Wright or him saying that we must be a less Christian nation.")
Brian Rogers, a spokesman for McCain, said, "Senator McCain is very proud of the campaign he ran in 2008. He stands by the decisions he made during that race and would make them again today if he had it to do over."
Reached Thursday morning, Mark Salter, one of McCain's closest friends and advisers, said the Ricketts plan would be a bad idea on several levels, and is based on a false narrative that McCain lost because he refused to attack Obama over his connections to Rev. Wright.
McCain wouldn't allow the attack because of concerns it would stoke racial animus, Salter recalled. "It was the honorable thing to do," he said.
Second, even forgoing that moral imperative, the attack would have backfired, Salter said, alienating persuadable voters. McCain's campaign was a flawed one that made mistakes, but Salter maintained that a refusal to entertain race-based conspiracy theories involving Wright and black liberation theology was not one of them.
"I suspect this was leaked by someone who wants to stop it from happening," Salter suggested, believing this approach - pushed by McCain consultant Fred Davis then and now - would ultimately hurt Romney with the voters he needs in November. Salter said any day spent on a topic other than "Obama's mismanagement of the economy" is a day wasted.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina attempted to blame this campaign on Romney, saying, "This morning's story revealed the appalling lengths to which Republican operatives and SuperPacs apparently are willing to go to tear down the President and elect Mitt Romney. The blueprint for a hate-filled, divisive campaign of character assassination speaks for itself. It also reflects how far the party has drifted in four short years since John McCain rejected these very tactics. Once again, Governor Romney has fallen short of the standard that John McCain set, reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his own party."
The Romney campaign's approach to this campaign has generally been to pursue those voters who pulled the lever for Obama last time, and there is a risk that a campaign focused against Wright could alienate those voters.
Obama beat McCain by 10 million votes, but the truth is, because of the electoral college, all McCain would have needed is 1.5 million folks in Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and other battleground states to change their votes and we'd be talking about President McCain (and Vice President Sarah Palin) today. So, targeting these voters - the "persuadables" - Romney is attempting to rhetorically 'give permission' to these voters to like Obama, to not regret their vote, but to switch their vote. You hear it in his campaign rhetoric: Obama's a nice guy, he loves his country, he just doesn't get the economy. He did this in his announcement speech, talking about how giving Obama a shot was quintessentially American.
The questions this ad campaign therefore prompts are: Would this SuperPAC campaign augment that or undermine it? Would it help win over the persuadables or would it alienate them?
For his part, Wright has emerged in recent days, having granted an interview to conservative author Ed Klein. He did not respond to a request for comment.