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Ready to attack Obama, if some money arrives

Though cited by Senator Barack Obama as a reason not to accept public campaign financing, no major independent effort to help Senator John McCain’s campaign has materialized.
/ Source: The New York Times

A Bible verse taped to a whiteboard in Floyd Brown’s office that he uses to track his efforts to attack Senator Barack Obama reads, “That is why for Christ’s sake I delight in weakness, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.”

Mr. Brown, 47, a 6-foot-6 bear of a man is perhaps best known for his involvement with the Willie Horton television advertisement that helped sink Michael S. Dukakis’s candidacy in 1988. Mr. Brown has had much in his career to be delighted about as the source of scores of conservative assaults on Democrats that have earned him their lasting enmity.

Mr. Brown is back to his trade of bludgeoning a Democratic candidate for president, producing an innuendo-laden advertisement that is being televised this week in Michigan, albeit sparsely on cable, questioning Mr. Obama’s religious background.

The Obama campaign singled out Mr. Brown on Thursday as emblematic of the threat that independent groups on the right posed to him. On Friday, Mr. Obama, at a news conference in Jacksonville, Fla., again named Mr. Brown while defending his campaign’s rejection of public financing for the general election.

Yet if Mr. Brown’s struggles are any indication — he has so far failed to raise much money — it is not clear that Republicans will be able to repeat their successes in 2004, when independent groups like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had a significant role in undermining Senator John Kerry’s campaign.

“It’s all about reaching a tipping point,” Mr. Brown said. “Swift Boats achieved the tipping point. I was part of a team that reached the tipping point in 1988. In 1992, we didn’t reach it. We might not this time. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try.”

No major independent effort to help Senator John McCain’s campaign has materialized. Although Republican operatives say something will eventually develop, alarm has spread among many, especially after Mr. Obama’s announcement on Thursday on public financing, raising the prospect that he will wield an enormous financial advantage over Mr. McCain in the fall.

Many reasons explain the absence of a serious independent effort at this point, Republican strategists said. Many wealthy donors who might be in a position to finance a 527 group, named for the Tax Code section that covers them, or a similar independent effort that is free to accept unlimited contributions are wary this time because of the legal problems that dogged many such groups after the 2004 election.

Major donors are said to be uncertain of Mr. McCain’s chances as Republicans face a decidedly unfavorable climate in the fall. Lingering, as well, is the possibility that they may anger Mr. McCain, who has a record of campaign finance reform and has in the past been critical of such groups.

Perhaps in recognition of financial realities, the McCain campaign has softened its statements on such groups, repeatedly saying it cannot be expected to “referee” them.

Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser to Mr. McCain, said Friday that although Mr. McCain had made clear his objections to such groups, he also recognized that a number of them were poised to work on Mr. Obama’s behalf. Mr. Schmidt said Mr. McCain understood that “people who want to participate in the process because of what’s going on on the other side are going to participate in the process.”

“He’s not going to be a unilateral referee,” Mr. Schmidt added.

Frank J. Donatelli, deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, predicted that Mr. Obama’s decision not to use public financing would energize Republicans.

“We are going to be ready,” Mr. Donatelli said.

Enter Mr. Brown, who says it is his calling to tread where the campaign is unwilling to tread in finding malicious gossip on a Democratic nominee.

Several Republican strategists interviewed voiced skepticism about Mr. Brown’s chances of operating at anything other than the periphery of the general election this year, citing the amount of money needed, the difficulty of spreading a message that incites the grass roots and stricter regulation of independent groups.

“There’s a lot of people who are trying to catch lightning in a bottle, but there’s very few people who have,” said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist who helped organize the Swift Boat effort.

Mr. Brown conceded that his operation was in its infancy, showing $40,000 in the bank between two committees at the end of March for its first-quarter filing with the Federal Election Commission. Nevertheless, he appears to be at least mounting a serious effort that offers a glimpse at the challenges for such groups, as well as their potential.

At the heart of the effort is a Web site,, that has featured two Web advertisements, one on Mr. Obama’s record on crime and the other on his religious background.

The second spot highlights a Roman Catholic elementary school roster from Indonesia showing that Mr. Obama registered as a Muslim. The campaign said that the notation was probably made because Mr. Obama’s stepfather was nominally a Muslim but that the candidate had never been a Muslim. He is a committed Christian.

The site has helped Mr. Brown raise $100,000 in a month and a half. On Friday, after Mr. Obama’s announcement, Mr. Brown received 400 contributions, more than the usual weekly figure, totaling more than $15,000.

Mr. Brown is spreading the word about his videos through an e-mail list that he said had 2.5 million names. His goal is to produce at least one Web advertisement every two weeks, spread the word with e-mail and hope they catch on.

Mr. Brown is also using two conservative direct mail businesses to raise money, Response Dynamics and the Richard Norman Company, which ran the mail campaign for the Swift Boat effort, as well as two telemarketing businesses.

Although he said he was mostly in the testing phase with the mailings, Mr. Brown has put out 700,000 pieces and collected more than $600,000 by mail this year, a vast majority in the last two months. That period is after his last campaign finance filing.

Mr. Brown has also created a network of organizations that he can use to attack Mr. Obama, including two political action committees, the National Campaign Fund and the Legacy Committee, that are governed by strict limits on campaign donations, as well as a 527 group, Citizens for a Safe and Prosperous America.

Mr. Brown’s financial limits were obvious with his most recent advertisement, questioning Mr. Obama’s religious background. He spent $5,000 to broadcast it. A cable company in the Detroit area approved it. Another kept Mr. Brown in legal limbo.

With most big-money conservative donors remaining cautious, Mr. Brown is focusing more on his political action committees. That could limit his ability to raise large sums. The maximum donation to such entities is $5,000.

Political action committees are much freer to attack candidates than 527s, which are technically limited to advocating on issues and cannot expressly call for a candidate’s election or defeat.

For conservatives hoping to repeat the Swift Boat effort, Federal Election Commission rulings 2004 put such advertisements, which questioned a candidate’s character and fitness for office, off limits to 527s specifically.

Mr. Brown, a gregarious evangelical churchgoer who likes to boast that he has slept with one woman in his life, his wife, said that he merely enjoyed the interchange of ideas and that there was nothing personal about his attacks.

He said he earned a living as an investment writer and a speaker, working in politics part time. His résumé includes setting up a 900 number in the 1992 election so people could listen to recorded telephone conversations purported to be between Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers.

But there are boundaries even Mr. Brown is unwilling to cross. He said many potential large donors had lost interest after he explained to them that certain harder-hitting advertisements that they favored were not possible through a 527.

His estimates of what he might be able to raise by the fall, assuming that he does not reach his imaginary “tipping point,” are in the $8 million range. That would be hardly consequential, especially in the face of the expected advertising onslaught from Mr. Obama.

Mr. Brown is hopeful, however, that major donors will step forward. “The vehicle will be there,” he said. “The talent will be there. Everything’s prepared.”

Kate Zernike contributed reporting from New York.

This story, Ready to attack Obama, if some money arrives, originally appeared in The New York Times.