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Two senators for McCain leave group after ads

Senators Joseph Lieberman and Lindsey Graham , prominent surrogates for Senator John McCain ’s presidential campaign, stepped down from a group that released a pair of Internet advertisements attacking Senator Barack Obama on Iraq.
/ Source: The New York Times

Senators Joseph I. Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, prominent surrogates for Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign, stepped down Wednesday from their positions with an independent group that released a pair of Internet advertisements attacking Senator Barack Obama on Iraq.

Mr. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, and Mr. Graham, Republican of South Carolina, were both on the policy advisory board to the organization, Vets for Freedom, which on Wednesday released its second Web advertisement in less than a week attacking Mr. Obama.

The senators’ positions with the group, which describes itself as a grass-roots advocacy organization pushing for victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, seemed to place them in contravention of new conflict-of-interest rules released by Mr. McCain’s campaign that specifically prohibit anyone “with a McCain campaign title or position” from participating in a “527 or other independent entity that makes public communications that support or oppose any presidential candidate.”

After inquiries from reporters, the senators released a joint letter to Vets for Freedom on Wednesday saying they had requested a leave from their positions to come into compliance with the new policy.

“This is obviously something we’re working through,” said Brian Rogers, a spokesman for the McCain campaign. “This is the kind of thing that happens when you have the strictest possible policy on these issues.”

The new policy was meant to head off embarrassing questions about connections of members of the McCain campaign to special interests that run counter to Mr. McCain’s reformist reputation. But adhering to that standard has proved complicated.

The new rules were prompted this month in part by revelations that Craig Shirley, a consultant to the campaign, was also paid by a 527 group that was criticizing Mr. Obama. Mr. Shirley stepped down from his role on Mr. McCain’s Virginia leadership team.

Vets for Freedom put out its first advertisement last Friday, featuring an Iraq war veteran saying Mr. Obama “hasn’t once sat down one on one with our commander in Iraq, General Petraeus,” adding: “Worse, he hasn’t been to Iraq in two-and-a-half years. He’s unwilling to get the facts on Iraq, yet he’s willing to travel to Iran to meet their leader, or anyone else who hates our country.” The veterans group’s latest commercial continued on the same theme.

Vets for Freedom is not organized as a 527, which refers to a section of the tax code. The designation often carries a negative connotation because of the attacks of 527 groups like in the 2004 campaign. Instead, Vets for Freedom is organized as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, an increasingly common tactic for outside groups seeking to get involved in campaigns.

The group also has a political action committee, which financed the Internet advertisements.

“We are not supporting the candidacy or opposing the candidacy of anybody,” Pete Hegseth, the group’s chairman, said. “We’re merely asking serious questions about a sitting senator.”

Mr. Hegseth said the advisory board that Mr. Graham and Mr. Lieberman served on is “honorary” in nature and is “not involved in any day-to-day operations or strategic decision-making.”

Political action committees and other independent groups are barred from coordinating with campaigns.

Mr. Hegseth, however, was also identified in a January news release from the McCain campaign as a member of its Virginia leadership team. But Mr. Hegseth said that was a mistake and that he had not been aware of his name being on the list, pointing out he has never lived in Virginia.

The group’s founder, Wade Zirkle, is also identified as a member of Mr. McCain’s Virginia leadership team. Another member of the group’s policy board is , an outside foreign policy adviser to the McCain campaign.

Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.

This article, 2 Senators for McCain Leave Group After Ads, first appeared in The New York Times.