WASHINGTON -- Independent political groups launched themselves into the White House contest with full force this week, unveiling a slew of television, radio and Internet attack ads on the eve of today's vice presidential debate between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin.
Vets for Freedom, a non-profit group with ties to Republican donors, started a $2.2 million television campaign in California, slamming Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama on national security. The California Nurses Association, which supports Obama, began running an anti-Palin television ad Wednesday in six battleground states. The 30-second spot, titled "One Heartbeat Away," says Palin is unsuited for the job.
Similar ads will hit the air in the coming weeks as groups try to influence the close race between Obama and Republican John McCain, analysts said. The groups are boosted by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that allows them to run attack ads in the final days before an election.
"These groups have been holding back, trying to raise as much money as they can, but now it's go time," said Evan Tracey, who tracks TV political ads for TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG.
Independent groups, which cannot legally coordinate their activities with the candidates, were a big force in the 2004 race between President Bush and Democrat John Kerry. They ranged from the liberal MoveOn.org Voter Fund and deep-pocketed labor unions to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a small group bankrolled by a handful of wealthy GOP donors that ran television ads challenging Kerry's Vietnam War record.
Vets for Freedom has emerged as one of the bigger players in this election.
The group, which bills itself as the nation's largest group of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, has spent more than $5 million on TV ads, chairman Pete Hegseth said.
The Vets ad, titled "Skipped," says Obama missed nearly half the Senate's votes but showed up "to vote against emergency funding for our troops."
Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt called the ad "a despicable distortion" of Obama's record.
Obama and McCain each have voted for bills that include troop funding. Obama said he opposed one such bill in May 2007 because it did not set a timetable for removing U.S. troops from Iraq.
The group operates under a section of the tax code that does not require it to identify its donors. The donors who appeared on the most recent IRS statement for a now-defunct arm of the group included several major GOP contributors, such as Virginia developer Bob Pence.
Other independent groups are airing pro-Obama ads. They include the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, whose ads attack the records of McCain and Palin, and Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, which will air an anti-Palin commercial tonight on TV stations in St. Louis, the site of the vice presidential faceoff.
The ad, which includes graphic, bloody images of aerial hunting of wolves, also will run in five battleground states. Palin backs hunting from aircraft to protect moose and caribou populations from predators.
"These sorts of disgusting ads being run by Obama's special-interest allies are part of what's wrong with Washington," Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant said.