DES MOINES, Iowa, Dec. 22, 2007 -- A fierce fight broke out among the Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa, Saturday, as Sen. Barack Obama accused his rival, former Sen. John Edwards of hypocrisy.
The debate was not about the Iraq war or health care — but the influence of independent third party groups that are not supposed to be coordinating with any candidate or campaign, and are pouring money, TV ads, fliers, phone calls and workers into the Hawkeye State.
Obama pointed out that Edwards has condemned these independent political support groups, the least transparent of which are called 527s, while his former campaign manager is helming one that, on Friday, pushed to spend $770,000 in TV ads on his behalf.
Nick Baldick, Edwards' campaign manager in 2004, and a senior adviser in his campaign until last April, is running the pro-Edwards "Alliance for a New America" with help from local branches of the Service Employees International Union.
"I don't just talk the talk, I walk the walk," Obama said in Oskaloosa, Iowa. "You can't say, yesterday, you don't believe in them, and today, you have three quarters of a million dollars spent for you. You can't just talk the talk."
In Lisbon, Iowa, today, Edwards insisted his hands are tied.
"I can't talk to them about it at all. We're not allowed to coordinate in any way," he said.
In Coralville, Iowa, this afternoon, Edwards timidly called on the group "not to run the ads. I don't support 527s. They're a part of the law. I don't have any direct control over it, because the law requires that I stay out of it. But I would prefer that all 527s — not just this one — but all the 527s stay out of Iowa. But I have no legal authority over that."
Though it's illegal for third party groups to coordinate with candidates or their campaigns, organizations supporting Edwards and Sen. Hillary Clinton are spending millions on their behalf.
Any Iowa mom who Googles the word "recipe" should see an ad linking to YouGoGirl.com, which recruits women to caucus for Clinton. The ad is courtesy of the powerful abortion rights group EMILY's List, which works to elect Democratic women.
EMILY's List is a political action committee, not a 527, meaning it is regulated by the Federal Election Commission, and subject to its contribution limits. The 527s operate much more beneath the radar, allowed to accept financial contributions in any amount from anyone, and required only to make regular reports to the Internal Revenue Service of both funding and expenditures.
The 527s are, therefore, much more controversial and — as they did in 2004 with "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" attacks on Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. — they are playing an increasingly large role in this primary season, and some of their tactics seem shady. They increase the amount of money backing candidates, and insulate candidates from the attacks, which is a particular benefit in Iowa, where voters look down on negative tactics.
A new Iowa TV ad from American Right to Life Action assails Republican Mitt Romney for once supporting abortion rights. And the group Trust Huckabee assails Mike Huckabee's rivals in phone calls.
"It's not being done with any cooperation, coordination or the blessing of our campaign," Huckabee said earlier this month. "In fact, I don't think it's anybody whose really supporting me. I really don't."
A flier from the mysterious Iowans for Some Semblance of Christian Decency attacks Huckabee, claming he's not a good conservative or Christian.
And a mailing from the giant union AFSCME, which supports Clinton, assails Obama's health care plan — but makes it look like the flier is from Edwards, a crafty way to attack Obama and have Edwards take the heat for it.
The Clinton campaign says it has nothing to do with the mailing.
Sunlen Miller, Raelyn Johnson, and Kevin Chupka contributed to this report.