JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mitt Romney said Thursday that he rejected the proposal presented to a GOP "super PAC" that intended to tie President Obama to incendiary comments by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. — a risky approach that former Republican presidential candidate John McCain ruled out when he ran against Obama in 2008.
During an interview with the conservative website TownHall.com where he made his first comments about a New York Times story about the ad proposal, Romney said he hoped the campaign would focus on the economy and getting the American people back to work.
“I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they've described,” Romney told Townhall. The former Massachusetts governor said the Obama campaign has engaged in a campaign of “character assassination” against him, a reference to the Obama campaign’s focus on his work at the private equity firm Bain Capital.
“I hope that isn't the course of this campaign,” Romney said in the Townhall interview. “In regards to that PAC, I repudiate what they're thinking about.... It's interesting that we're talking about some Republican PAC that wants to go after the president [on Wright]. I hope people also are looking at what [Obama] is doing, and saying 'why is he running an attack campaign? Why isn't he talking about his record?'”
The New York Times reported Thursday that a group of Republican strategists, including 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s ad man Fred Davis, have developed a plan to highlight Wright’s controversial sermons on the subject of race. The ad campaign was proposed to an outside group funded by Joe Ricketts, a billionaire who founded the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade. The $10-million advertising campaign would show, the strategists said in the proposal, “the influence of that misguided mentor and our president’s formative years among left-wing intellectuals has brought our country to its knees.”
The 54-page proposal obtained by the New York Times, which is posted at the paper's website, suggested hiring an “extremely literate conservative African American” spokesman who would make the case that Obama deceived the nation by running as a “metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln.”
Obama’s relationship to Wright became a enormous liability during his 2008 campaign after clips of some of Wright’s controversial sermons, including portions in which he said “God damn America” and said after the September 11thattacks that “American’s chickens are coming home to roost,” were widely circulated on television and on the Internet. Obama looked to Wright for spiritual guidance for two decades before severing his relationship with the pastor in the spring of 2008. The then-candidate said he had never heard his pastor make the kinds of comments that emerged.
Obama’s Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton said she would not have chosen Wright as her spiritual advisor. McCain tried to steer away from the issue of race in his general election contest with Obama and decided not to pursue Wright as an issue in the campaign. (Strategists who developed the plan presented to Ricketts said the super PAC would be able to “do exactly what John McCain would not let us do” in 2008.)
“I was never prouder to work for John McCain than we he said absolutely not, we're not doing that. There was consensus in the campaign that we're not going to do it,” McCain’s top strategist Steve Schmidt said in a phone interview on Thursday.
“If you have any sense of history in this country, any sense of race relations in this country, that's a fuse you don't light because what happens after you light it is totally unpredictable and the consequences could be grave,” Schmidt said. “There are legitimate criticisms to be made of this president, but this isn't one of them. It's totally distracting and today this idiocy will prevent Mitt Romney from delivering an economic message which he needs to deliver every day in order to win the presidency."
While Romney distanced himself from the proposal presented to the Ending Spending Action Fund tied to Ricketts, he criticized Obama’s former connection to Wright -- and implicitly raised questions about Obama’s faith -- in a radio interview with Sean Hannity in February.
“I think again that the president takes his philosophical leanings in this regard, not from those who are ardent believers in various faiths but instead from those who would like America to be more secular,” Romney told Hannity in February. “And I’m not sure which is worse, him listening to Rev. Wright or him saying that we must be a less Christian nation.”
A spokesman for Ending Spending Action Fund said the group was merely considering the advertising campaign, and released a statement on behalf of Ricketts stating that the plan was “merely a proposal” presented to the group for consideration.
“It reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take,” Brian Baker, the president of Ending Spending Action Fund, said. “Mr. Ricketts intends to work hard to help elect a president this fall who shares his commitment to economic responsibility, but his efforts are and will continue to be focused entirely on questions of fiscal policy, not attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally.”
[For the Record, 12:00 p.m. May 17: An earlier version of this post said “Hillary Clinton would have chosen Wright as her spiritual advisor.” Actually, Clinton said in 2008 that she would not have selected Wright.]
Times staff writer Mark Barabak contributed to this report.
Original source: Romney, 'super PAC' reject proposed Rev. Wright ad campaign