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Super PAC Lifelines Keep Weakened Candidates in the Game Super PAC Lifelines Keep Weakened Candidates in the Game

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The Trail: 2012 Presidential News from the Field / campaign 2012

Super PAC Lifelines Keep Weakened Candidates in the Game

It's a whole new way to keep hope alive -- at least through Super Tuesday.

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich with his wife, Callista.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

February 28, 2012

Newt Gingrich has all the marks of a dead candidate walking: He hasn’t won a contest since South Carolina nearly six weeks ago and he never seriously competed in either Michigan or Arizona, where he finished at the back of the pack.

But instead of winding down, Gingrich’s campaign—or at least the one being waged on his behalf—is set for its most aggressive push yet. According to a source close to Winning Our Future, the super PAC supporting Gingrich, the group begins an ad blitz on Wednesday in seven upcoming primary states, including  many holding contests next week on Super Tuesday. The ads are thanks to yet another contribution from Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who, along with his wife, has already contributed $10 million to the PAC.

“We haven’t gone away and we don’t plan to go away,” said Rick Tyler, a senior adviser to the group. “We have a lot of states that look like South Carolina coming up.”

 

The super PAC ad campaign gives the onetime House speaker hope that he can still capture the nomination—and underscores the new reality of presidential campaigns. In years past, simple accounting might have spelled the early demise of some of the scrappier operations that are still competing this year. But thanks to the emergence of super PACs—the outside groups that have funneled tens of millions of dollars into this year’s contests, uninhibited by rules that limit contributions to candidates—there’s room for everyone, or at least everyone with rich friends interested in politics.

“Candidates in the past who would have had to drop out of the race because they were accumulating debt and only had the cash needed to travel around the country are now capable of staying in, so long as they have a couple of wealthy donors to write large checks on their behalf,” said Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College. “It’s a whole new variant of keeping the hope alive.”

The super PACs have been particularly influential in the battle of the airwaves across a number of critical primary states. Restore Our Future, the super PAC backing Mitt Romney, has unabashedly ripped apart Romney’s opponents, allowing the candidate to at least try to stay above the fray at various points in the campaign. Gingrich and Rick Santorum owe even more of what success they’ve had so far to the fact that a handful of super-rich donors have been willing to shell out big bucks to the super PACs backing them, even when their prospects looked bleak and their fundraising floundered.

Back when Santorum was barnstorming through Iowa in a pickup truck, posting anemic fundraising numbers and boasting little organization to speak of, the millionaire mutual fund manager Foster Friess gave $331,000 to the Red, White and Blue Fund, the super PAC backing the former senator from Pennsylvania. Since Santorum’s surge, Friess has given even more--a total of $1 million as of Jan. 31.

Adelson has played an even bigger role in keeping Gingrich’s White House ambitions alive. Adelson’s first $5 million donation to Winning Our Future came at a critical juncture, after Gingrich suffered stinging defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire and headed back to his own turf in the South. With the help of Gingrich’s sharpest debate performance yet, that money propelled Gingrich to a commanding victory in the Palmetto State that’s sustained him since then.

But the financial lifelines that super PACs have provided candidates like Gingrich and Santorum have also come with their own set of problems. Santorum’s campaign, for instance, was knocked off message in February after Friess joked about women holding an aspirin between their knees as a means of birth control.

The comment forced Santorum to apologize, and it underscored the vulnerability that he and his GOP rivals face: Candidates are increasingly at the mercy of organizations they don’t control. 

“The minute you lose control over your message because it’s sponsored by independent organizations, that carries great peril for the candidate,” said one GOP adviser not affiliated with any campaign. “The super PACs could be saying something harmful to a candidate’s message, and we’ve already seen that numerous times this campaign.”

The outside groups also aren’t a panacea for all of a campaign’s organizational woes. Even if they can underwrite millions in TV advertisements and set up voter-outreach efforts, campaigns are still solely responsible for a number of necessities. In other words, the organizational disparity between the well-oiled Ron Paul and Romney machines and the lightweight Gingrich and Santorum operations can’t be bridged by a few million-dollar checks.

The Gingrich and Santorum super PACs, for instance, didn’t help either candidate land on the ballot in Virginia; both will be missing for the Super Tuesday primary next week. Super PACs also can’t help a campaign follow through on the often complicated delegate-selection process in caucus states like Minnesota and Colorado, which ultimately determine how much support a candidate receives. By contrast, Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman fueled by grassroots passion and money, has focused on the organizing it takes to get on ballots and win delegates.

Even super PAC ad blitzes worth millions weren’t enough to rescue Jon Huntsman or Rick Perry, both of whom were gone by the time South Carolina voters went to the polls on Jan. 21.

At some point it is up to a candidate to say he or she has decided it would be futile to continue. That hasn’t happened yet with Gingrich, and because of his super PAC, it may not happen for a while. “We’re in it as long as he’s in it,” said Tyler. “He says he’s going to convention, so we’ll be there.”

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