Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and rival John McCain's campaign sparred Monday over an independent group's advertising campaign that is promoting McCain's stance on security and spending issues.
Romney, campaigning in New Hampshire, criticized the organization, the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, noting that it is not required to identify its donors and can accept contributions of any size.
"It is an entire end-run on any effort to control campaign spending and offer transparency," Romney said. He added that legislation championed by McCain in 2002 to overhaul campaign finance had turned out to be a failure
McCain on Monday asked his donors and backers to "cease and desist immediately" from supporting advertising efforts that are not officially connected to his Republican presidential campaign but that promote his stance on political issues.
McCain, who has been a longtime critic of such independent expenditures, specifically singled out Republican media strategist and former McCain adviser Rick Reed and urged him to stop running ads that portray McCain and two of his congressional allies as leaders on national security and frugal government spending.
The Arizona senator made no reference to Romney. But in a blistering statement, McCain senior adviser Mark Salter noted that Romney, a wealthy former venture capitalist, has pumped millions of his own money into the campaign and once supported the changes in campaign law that McCain helped push through Congress five years ago.
"Mitt Romney once promised not to self-fund his campaign, and ever since has been busy robbing his kids' inheritance to do just that," Salter said in a statement. "If hypocrisy were an Olympic sport, Mitt Romney would be a multiple gold medal winner." The reference to the Olympics was a swipe at Romney, who often points to his management of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics as an example of his executive skills.
McCain's statement Monday elaborated on his condemnation of the ads Friday, after The Associated Press first reported on the existence of the new group. The ad, created by Reed and running in South Carolina, salutes McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. John Shadegg, a Republican from McCain's home state of Arizona. Graham and Shadegg are backing McCain's candidacy and South Carolina is one of the early primary states in the presidential nominating contest.
"Anyone who believes they could assist my campaign by exploiting a loophole in campaign finance laws is doing me and our country a disservice," McCain said. "I ask all of my donors and supporters, including Mr. Reed, to cease and desist immediately from supporting any independent expenditures that might be construed as benefiting my campaign indirectly. If you respect me or my principles, I urge you to refrain from using my name and image in any ads or other activities."
Reed said last week that the group is being financed by McCain donors. On Monday, he said the foundation would not limit its contributors to donors of any particular campaign.
"It's a broad issue group that welcomes political adherents of any stripe," he said.
The group, established under tax laws as a 501(c)4 organization, can raise money in unlimited amounts from donors whose identities do not have to be disclosed.
Such non-profits can run political ads as long as they do not expressly advocate the victory or defeat of a political candidate. They also must show that the ad campaign is part of a broader mission related to an issue, not a candidate.
Independent groups cannot coordinate their strategies with a political campaign — a restriction that McCain has said prevents him from asking Reed personally to stop the ads. "I can't do that because that's against the law," he said Sunday on Fox News.
McCain was one of the authors of the 2002 law that eliminated unlimited contributions, or soft money, to political parties.
In the aftermath of the law, political strategists shifted their attention to outside groups that could still obtain soft money and run ads on behalf of candidates.
The foundation's ad focuses on two issues that are central to McCain's campaign — support for the U.S. military presence in Iraq and opposition to congressional spending on pet projects.
On Monday, the McCain campaign also released its own ad in New Hampshire, focusing on spending issues. The 30-second spot, running in New Hampshire and Boston markets, cites millions of dollars of congressional earmarks on items such as a bridge in Alaska that led to a sparsely populated island, for a DNA study of bears and for a Woodstock Museum as examples of pork-barrel spending.
The ad shows McCain walking at President Reagan's side, at work and on the campaign trail. "I'll stop wasteful spending by Congress," McCain says. "And restore Americans' trust in their government."