By BETH FOUHY and KEN THOMAS
NEW YORK - Looks like President Barack Obama's allies got the hint.
An independent group with deep ties to the president's re-election campaign launched a new television ad Tuesday hitting Mitt Romney's business practices at Bain Capital, just 24 hours after Obama's team debuted its own ad attacking the Republican presidential candidate's work at the private equity firm.
The back-to-back spots, to run in four of the same five general election swing states, are a sign of the new world of campaign finance, where so-called super political action committees have wide leeway to spend as much as they want to help or hurt candidates. And the ads also cast new light on the cozy relationship between campaigns and these groups, raising questions about how independent they are from each other.
The coziness isn't limited to Democrats. A Romney-aligned super PAC is keeping him competitive on TV as he regroups for the general election. And the relationship between that group - Restore Our Future - and the presumptive GOP nominee was on vivid display during the Republican primaries, when the group spent $36 million on ads assailing the former Massachusetts governor's rivals.
Super PACs, born of a 2010 Supreme Court decision easing political spending rules, can raise and spend unlimited donations as long as they don't coordinate directly with the campaigns they support. But the lines are often blurry: The pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action is run by former Obama White House aides, while Restore Our Future is staffed by former Romney advisers.
Strategists for the super PACs insist they are operating independently and are not relying on signals from the presidential campaigns as to what advertising strategy to pursue. But campaign finance watchdogs are crying foul, arguing that super PACs have effectively become high-dollar shadow campaign operations for candidates otherwise constrained by much stricter federal campaign finance rules.
"Candidate-specific super PACs are simply arms of the presidential campaigns and need to be treated as such and be subject to contribution limits," said Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a campaign finance reform advocacy group. "The idea that these groups are independent is a fiction in reality terms and, we believe, a fiction in legal terms."
Republicans have generally welcomed the emergence of super PACs, and several GOP-leaning groups spent millions to take control of the House and pick up six Senate seats in 2010. Obama sharply criticized the emergence of super PACs that year but ultimately green-lighted contributions to Priorities USA Action after it became clear that his campaign and other Democrats would be vastly outgunned otherwise.
Tuesday's new ad launched by Priorities USA Action highlights the failure of GST Steel, a Kansas City, Mo.-based company purchased by Bain Capital that went bankrupt and laid off 750 workers in 2001. A day earlier, the Obama campaign announced it was targeting Bain's management of GST Steel in a two-minute ad.
Priorities USA Action is spending $4 million to air the new ad, while the Obama campaign committed just under $100,000 to run its commercial. But Bill Burton, a former Obama White House aide who now heads Priorities USA Action, said the timing of the two ads was a coincidence and his group had not waited for the Obama campaign go after Bain before making a similar attack.
"It wasn't a matter of waiting for anything, this was our strategy," Burton said, adding that the ad had been shot in February and the group has several more it plans to air related to Bain.
"There are four or five examples that are particularly telling of how Mitt Romney made decisions when he was in private business. We had planned on telling this story regardless," Burton said.
Priorities USA Action's might may be limited - the group has struggled to raise money, taking in about $10 million through its super PAC and affiliated nonprofit arm by the end of March. The group has spent $2.7 million on ads in May, compared to $28.6 million by the Obama campaign, according to data provided by ad buyers to The Associated Press.
Republican-leaning groups, by contrast, spent about $14 million on commercials in the same period. About $4.3 million was spent by Restore Our Future, which has raised at least $51 million since its inception to support Romney. The Romney campaign has spent no money on TV ads since Romney's Republican opponents dropped out, clearing his path to the nomination.
Obama's campaign opened the month of April with more than $100 million in the bank, a 10-to-1 fundraising advantage over Romney. But the president's edge is minimized by the campaign cash raised by Restore Our Future and other Republican-leaning super PACs, which have pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to help Romney.
Carl Forti, who heads Restore Our Future and served as political director for Romney's 2008 presidential bid, said the group does not need to coordinate with the Romney campaign to know how to make the best use of resources.
"We're politically experienced people, we know what Obama's vulnerabilities are and what we need to do to help Mitt win," Forti said. "Just because we can anticipate what they need and where they are going, it doesn't mean it's coordinated."
Forti also serves as a strategist for American Crossroads, a super PAC with ties to Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's longtime political director. Crossroads has announced plans to spend as much as $300 million to influence the presidential contest.
While the Republican groups may not coordinate directly with the Romney campaign, they do coordinate with each other. Leaders of some leading Republican super PACs attend a monthly meeting hosted by Crossroads to share information and devise strategy.
Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center, an advocacy group, said super PACs are operating under a fig leaf of independence that does not hold up under scrutiny.
"Super PACs have little or no true independence, that's why large contributions to super PACs pose just as great a threat of corruption as they would if given directly to the candidates," Ryan said. "To put it bluntly, there's no real need for them to coordinate as the law defines it in order to run an incredibly effective ad campaign using unlimited, potentially corrupting contributions."
The new Priorities USA Action ad is running on TV in Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The Super PAC also began a website with its version of Romney's record as CEO of Bain Capital. The Obama campaigns ad is to air in Iowa instead of Florida.
Thomas reported from Washington.
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