It’s not just Mike Huckabee’s top rival in the Republican race who is responsible for attack ads that have damaged his candidacy in the closing days of the Iowa campaign.
Huckabee has been the target of a $550,000 campaign waged by the conservative anti-tax Club for Growth. An Arkansas man who is responsible for a separate low-budget hit vowed Monday to take his anti-Huckabee campaign to South Carolina, which holds its GOP primary Jan. 19.
The independent ads, combined with those funded by Republican Mitt Romney, appear to have stalled the former Arkansas governor’s surge in polls here and nationally.
During regular commercial breaks in Iowa, television viewers can watch Huckabee as an overweight governor speak about his support for tax increases on income, beer, gasoline, cigarettes and nursing home beds.
On Monday, Huckabee convened a news conference to announce that he had produced an ad responding to Romney’s attacks, but he decided not to air it. Huckabee acknowledged that the independent spots aimed at him were damaging and that it would be a “gamble” not to answer them in television ads aimed at Iowa voters.
“If they believe that a Washington special interest group with lots of money has been able to accurately sum up my life and record as a governor in 30 seconds, they’re going to believe it, and there’s probably not a lot I’m going to be able to do to change that,” Huckabee said.
Romney isn’t paying for the independent spots, but they often appear during the same commercial breaks as Romney-funded ads. A handful of wealthy donors, including several backers of the former Massachusetts governor, have paid for the spots with checks of as much as $100,000 to the Club for Growth, an independent group that produced and placed the spots.
Though federal election laws restrict the amount donors can give directly to candidates, looser restrictions govern what contributors can give to independent efforts to influence the race.
Houston home-builder Bob J. Perry, for example, has donated $2,300 to Romney, the most he can give to the candidate in the primary. Two weeks ago, Perry gave $200,000 to the Club for Growth, allowing the group to jack up its television buy to pummel Huckabee on the airwaves.
Perry drew considerable attention four years ago when he poured $4.5 million into Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the independent group that helped torpedo the 2004 presidential bid of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
Boston investor John Childs, who donated $2,100 to Romney in 2007, recently gave $100,000 to the Club for Growth. An analysis of 430 other donors to the Club for Growth in 2007 shows they also have given $60,000 to Romney, $65,000 to former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a Republican, and less than $4,000 to Huckabee.
Are they donating to the Club for Growth as a backdoor way of helping Romney?
“I suppose that is a possibility,” said Club for Growth spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik. “It could also be that they are afraid of Huckabee’s record.”
Romney’s aides have said the candidate has no connection to the spots.
In this presidential campaign, the Club for Growth and groups like it on the right and on the left have spent about $10 million. By November, when the next president is elected, they probably will have spent hundreds of millions in an attempt to sway the electorate.
Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has accepted federal matching funds, which restricts the amount he can spend in Iowa to about $4 million. But he is a major beneficiary of ads produced by one of his former political aides and funded by some of his most loyal donors. Deborah and Andrew Rappaport, two of his major Silicon Valley backers, have given $25,000 to one of the efforts.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) continues to spend millions of her own campaign dollars while receiving boosts from unions and EMILY’s List, an organization that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights.
The independent campaigns against Huckabee are notable because they have been so pointed. One YouTube spot attacks Huckabee over a decision by parole officials during his gubernatorial administration to release a rapist who later killed a teenage girl. It features the grieving mother blaming Huckabee for her daughter’s death.
Keith Emis, 29, the Arkansas man who produced the ad, said in an interview that the attention it had received had helped him raise money to air a version of the spot in South Carolina.
“There is a lot of money floating around on the Internet,” Emis said. “It is proving to be not particularly difficult to raise it.”