There’s no better evidence that the Republican presidential field has embraced super PACs as a driving force in their campaign than the debate over what to do about them. Mitt Romney has called for the abolition of super PACs, while he and Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman have distanced themselves from the groups, suggested they should be more transparent or at least less negative.
But the hand-wringing over the new breed of deep-pocketed outside groups has become a process debate – wrapped in the language of legal arcana and plausible deniability. And, when the candidates are pushed to call for an end to the ads or changes to the legal landscape that spawned them, they mostly back down. It’s a kabuki dance that allows candidates to keep their hands clean even as they become major players in a new big-money system that seems likely to dominate presidential politics for the foreseeable future.
And it was on full display Sunday. As allies of the candidates scrambled to collect huge checks for supportive super PACs to air ads ahead of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, and the primaries later this month in South Carolina and Florida, the candidates debated whether there was anything they could do about negative ads.
In a Sunday debate exchange in Concord, N.H., the two leading super PAC smack talkers, Romney and Gingrich, opened themselves to charges they contradicted themselves about ads from supportive super PACs – first claiming ignorance of them, then demonstrating intimate familiarity.
Even as he attacked Romney, Gingrich made clear he was familiar with an upcoming ad buy in South Carolina to show a 27-minute film slashing Romney over his record at Bain Capital — a buy financed largely through a $5 million contribution to a pro-Gingrich super PAC from casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.
Yet they also ignored a question from moderator David Gregory of NBC News about whether they would “both agree … to request that these super PAC ads be taken down.”
“David, wait a second. Come on, come on,” Gingrich, the former House Speaker, responded, pivoting to allegations he’s repeatedly leveled against Romney, accusing the former Massachusetts governor of controlling a super PAC called Restore Our Future that Gingrich says has aired ads defaming him.
“Governor, I wish you would calmly and directly state it is your former staff running the PAC. It is your millionaire friends giving to the PAC,” Gingrich said earlier in the Sunday debate exchange. “And you know some of the ads … are untrue. Just say that, straightforward.”