A controversial ad out this week is raising questions about how much control presidential candidates have over their broad array of campaign supporters - and how much they might ultimately want.
The ad, from the Republican Party of North Carolina, is aimed at raising questions statewide about two of the state's Democratic gubernatorial candidates. Normally, such an ad wouldn't get much national attention, but this isn't you're run-of-the-mill local politics spot: It focuses on the support both candidates, Bev Perdue and Richard Moore, have given Democratic presidential frontrunner Barack Obama - who, the ad claims, is "too extreme" for the state.
"For 20 years, Barack Obama sat in his pew, listening to his pastor," an announcer says as the ad opens. That controversial pastor, Jeremiah Wright, then appears onscreen, saying, "No, no, no. Not God Bless America. God Damn America!" (The ad, which you can watch here, has been called "misleading," since, according to Obama, he was not sitting in his pew when this particular sermon was delivered.)
Presumptive GOP nominee John McCain, who has pledged to run a "respectful campaign," quickly condemned the ad. He suggested in a letter to the state party chair, which was released to the media, that the spot "degrades our civics and distracts us from the very real differences we have with the Democrats." The Republican National Committee also condemned the ad.
The state party, however, didn't back down.
"We make the decisions how to run state campaigns here," state party spokesman Brent Woodcox said on Thursday. "We think it's a legitimate question to ask and we intend to run it."
After McCain's letter went out, skeptical bloggers questioned whether the Arizona senator was trying to have it both ways, suggesting that he was publicly taking the high road while allowing the anti-Obama ad to remain on track to air. Charlie Black, a chief strategist to McCain, called that notion "crazy."
"We wish we had influence on state parties, but we cannot legally tell them what to do," Black told CBSNews.com. He acknowledged that in so-called "targeted states," the general election battlegrounds to which the national parties often funnel money, the national party and nominee could potentially use "financial persuasion" to try to exert control over the state party. But Black said the McCain campaign wasn't doing so, and additionally noted that North Carolina isn't a targeted state.
"I could give you my 35 year history of watching the RNC try to control state parties, and it's not a very good batting average," Black added.
The North Carolina spot wasn't the only ad to surface this week over which a presidential campaign has no control. Floyd Brown, the producer of the famous "Willie Horton" ad that helped defeat Michael Dukakis, unveiled a 60-second anti-Obama spot called "Victims." The spot opens with an announcer detailing the gang-related murders of three Chicago residents in 2001.
"That same year, a Chicago state senator named Barack Obama voted against expanding the death penalty for gang-related murders," says the ad's female narrator, as ominous music plays in the background. "When the time came to be tough, Obama chose to be weak. So the question is, can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?"
Brown's ad, which he says will air in North Carolina and elsewhere, has thus far has not attracted much attention. But with outside groups on both sides gearing up for massive spending to influence the 2008 campaign - in the 2004 election cycle, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, the outside groups known as 527s raised more than $400 million - "Victims" looks like a harbinger of things to come.
The 527 groups, named for their tax designation, can raise money to run issue ads but cannot legally coordinate with the campaigns. (Among the major 527s planning major pushes this year are the conservative Freedom's Watch and liberal Campaign for America's Future.) Asked if he would stop running the "Victims" ad if McCain asked him to, Brown, who fronts his own 527, replied, "I think that you should get a primer on election law."
"What they think or don't think is none of my business, because I'm not a part of their campaign," Brown said. He added: "I am bound by federal law. I can't take direction from them, can't work with them, can't really listen to them."