Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press
DES MOINES, Iowa — At least $12.5 million and counting has blanketed the airwaves ahead of next Tuesday's Republican presidential caucuses, with hard-hitting commercials awash in ghoulish images and startling claims. Most are coming from a proliferation of new independent groups aligned with the candidates.
To hear the ads tell it, Newt Gingrich is a "serial hypocrite," Rick Perry "double dips" as governor and the "liberal Republican establishment" is plotting to anoint Mitt Romney as the party's presidential nominee. The attacks, the bulk of the commercials on the air, reflected the volatile state of the race five days before the first votes of the GOP presidential nominating contest.
After a slow start, the ads in Iowa are coming on fast and furious.
On Thursday alone, at least four new commercials were rolled out, including one by Perry castigating his rivals as Washington insiders and saying: "The fox guarding the henhouse is like asking a congressman to fix Washington: bad idea." An outside group aligned with Romney, Restore Our Future, rolled out a new spot that criticizes Gingrich and asks: "Haven't we had enough mistakes?"
In the final days of the Iowa campaign, most of the ads are deeply negative, thanks in large part to the proliferation of outside groups, known as super PACs, that are doing the dirty work for candidates they support. Gingrich has been the biggest target, withering under attacks from Ron Paul and Rick Perry's campaign as well as from several outside groups like the one aligned with Romney. Polls show that Gingrich's standing in Iowa has slid accordingly.
"I call it ad wars whack-a-mole — this endless attacking in all directions, trying to slam down anyone who is surging to the top," said David Perlmutter, a University of Iowa journalism professor who studies political communication. "This is the most negative I've ever seen it. The ads are so blatantly negative I would have told you 10 years ago this would never fly in Iowa."
It's a different landscape in the campaign advertising world than four years ago when Barack Obama won Iowa's Democratic caucuses and Mike Huckabee carried the Republican side. Social media has intensified the advertising binge, with many spots debuting on TV but also going viral across the web at almost no cost to the campaigns that sponsor them. Candidates are making heavy use of online advertising to target voters based on location and other demographic information.
Campaigns are also producing video specifically for the YouTube audience, like a new 90-second Romney video excerpting a speech Obama delivered in Iowa days before winning the Democratic caucuses in 2008.
"Well, Mr. President, you've had your moment ... this is our time," Romney says in the spot.
On Thursday, Jon Huntsman's campaign — which can't afford to put commercials on TV and is competing only in New Hampshire — hit at Paul in a new web video that highlights comments about race and gays in newsletters Paul used to put out. The ad asks: "Can New Hampshire voters really trust Ron Paul?'"
But nothing has altered the environment more than super PACs, which are facing their first test in a presidential campaign since a Supreme Court decision two years ago eased restrictions on campaign spending by corporations, unions and individuals.
Much of $12.5 million spent to date in Iowa, a figure confirmed by ad tracking firms, outside groups and the GOP campaigns, has been spent in just the past few weeks, much of it paying for negative ads.
The pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, has been by far the most influential in Iowa, helping to bolster the former Massachusetts governor's position in the state he lost in 2008, crippling that campaign.
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