New Hampshire's attorney general is investigating phone calls to voters that pretend to be opinion polls but then undercut presidential contender Mitt Romney and his Mormon faith — and make favorable statements about Republican rival John McCain.
McCain says they're not his doing and he wants them stopped. Romney says it's a religious attack and "un-American."
McCain said of the phone calling, "It is disgraceful, it is outrageous, and it is a violation, we believe, of New Hampshire law." His campaign asked the attorney general to investigate, and McCain, campaigning Friday in Colorado, asked other candidates to join in the request.
One McCain adviser, Chuck Douglas, said "we believe it is being done by one of the other campaigns. We don't know which one."
Western Wats, a Utah-based company, placed the calls that initially sound like a poll but then pose questions that cast Romney in a harsh light, according to people who received the calls. In politics, this type of phone surveying is called "push polling" — contacting potential voters and asking questions intended to plant a message, usually negative, rather than gauging attitudes.
A spokesman for the company would not comment on whether it made the calls. However, its client services director, Robert Maccabee, said, "Western Wats has never, currently does not, nor will it ever engage in push polling."
The 20-minute calls started on Sunday in New Hampshire and Iowa. At least seven people in the two early voting states received the calls, some as recently as Thursday.
Deputy Attorney General Bud Fitch said New Hampshire has never prosecuted a case involving such calls but was moving forward. He cautioned against expecting an immediate resolution.
"Generally, these investigations can take at least several days and sometimes several weeks," Fitch said.
Questioning Mormon faith
Among the questions the caller asked was whether the person receiving the call knew Romney was a Mormon, that he received military deferments when he served as a Mormon missionary in France, that his five sons did not serve in the military, that Romney's faith did not accept blacks as bishops into the 1970s and that Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is superior to the Bible.
"It started out like all the other calls ... Then all of the sudden it got very unsettling and very negative," said Anne Baker, an independent voter who was called in Hollis, N.H.
In Iowa, Romney supporter and state representative Ralph Watts got a call on Wednesday.
"I was offended by the line of questioning," Watts said. "I don't think it has any place in politics."
Romney, campaigning in Las Vegas, said Friday, "The attempts to attack me on the basis of my faith are un-American."
The former Massachusetts governor's Mormon faith has been an issue in his presidential bid, especially with conservative evangelicals who are central to his strategy to cast himself as the candidate for the GOP's family values voters.
Baker, who got a call in New Hampshire, said the caller initially wouldn't tell her who was behind it. Eventually, Baker was told the caller was from Western Wats.
Western Wats record
Last year, Western Wats conducted polling that was intended to spread negative messages about Democratic candidates in a House race in New York and a Senate race in Florida, according to reports in The Tampa Tribune and the Albany Times Union, which also said Western Wats conducted the calls on behalf of the Tarrance Group.
That Virginia-based firm now works for Romney's rival, Rudy Giuliani. The campaign has paid the firm more than $400,000, according to federal campaign reports.
In his statement on behalf of Western Wats, Maccabee said the company was not currently conducting "any work for ... The Tarrance Group in the state of New Hampshire or Iowa, nor have we for the period in question."
Maccabee added that confidentiality agreements prohibit the company from commenting on specific projects or clients.
Ed Goeas, chief of the Tarrance Group, said there is no connection between the Giuliani campaign and Western Wats.
"I know absolutely it's not us," Goeas said. "I can say with absolute, no, it's not us."
Western Wats also worked for Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. Employees said they used such calls at that time to describe GOP rival Steve Forbes as pro-abortion rights.
New Hampshire law requires that all political advertising, including phone calls, identify the candidate being supported. No candidate was identified in the calls.
Whoever is behind the calls, Romney said part of the blame must go to the 2002 McCain-Feingold law that limits campaign contributions. The phone campaign, he said, "points out how ineffective it has been in removing the influence of money and underhanded politics." He added, "I have seen over the last several weeks more and more reports of e-mails, of literature being passed out and now push polls which attack me on the basis of religion, and I think that's very disappointing and un-American."
McCain communications director Jill Hazelbaker took issue with the link to the McCain-Feingold law.
"It is appalling, but not surprising, that Mitt Romney would seek to take advantage of this disturbing incident to launch yet another hypocritical attack," she said.