NEW YORK — Get ready. The presidential ad campaign coming to a TV and radio near you is going to be nasty, expensive and heavily influenced by independent groups, particularly those that favor Republican Mitt Romney over Democrat Barack Obama.
Commercials airing in a handful of states offer a preview of what's to come.
"Mitt Romney stood with big oil, for their tax breaks," Obama's campaign says in an ad already running in six general election battleground states.
"No matter how Obama spins it, gas costs too much. Tell Obama, stop blaming others," the Republican-leaning group Crossroads GPS says in its latest ad, also airing in swing states.
The scorching ads that helped define the GOP nominating contest have yielded to the early stages of what will be an epic air battle between Romney and Obama as they scramble to define in the most unflattering terms and bring each other down. The emergence of outside groups known as super PACs is all but certain to ratchet up the negativity, adding a level of slash-and-burn rhetoric to the campaign that the candidates themselves might seek to avoid.
"The 2012 Republican primary was by far the most negative we've seen and my expectation will be that the 2012 general election will be one of the most negative in history," said William Benoit, who studies campaign advertising at Ohio University. "The super PAC ads will make it even more so."
Super PACs were borne from a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision easing campaign finance restrictions on corporations and wealthy people. Republican-leaning groups were very active in the 2010 contest, helping to wrest the House from Democratic control and picking up six Republican Senate seats.
The proliferation of super PACs and expected closeness of the Obama-Romney contest guarantee a TV ad rivalry much different than what voters saw in 2008, when Obama's campaign opted out of public financing and the state by state spending limits such financing requires. That decision allowed Obama to bury Republican Sen. John McCain beneath some $244 million worth of ads — a roughly a 4-to-1 spending advantage for Obama.
This cycle, that figure is likely to be swamped by spending by American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS alone. The sister groups, both tied to President George W. Bush's longtime political director Karl Rove and largely financed by a handful of wealthy businessmen, have announced plans to pour as much as $300 million into attack ads against Obama and other Democrats.
Romney turned down public financing for the primary campaign and is expected to do the same for the general election, as is Obama. That clears the way for a full-fledged ad war between the two campaigns, amplified by ads from super PACs.
The Obama campaign has already spent about $2 million on its ad this month in Iowa, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Florida and Nevada, according several media buyers who provided information to The Associated Press. Crossroads isn't far behind, having spent $1.8 million on its ad in the six states.
Crossroads' spokesman, Jonathan Collegio, said the group's current role is in part to fill the gap for Romney's campaign as it raises the money it needs for the campaign against Obama.
Collegio said the months between the primaries and the political conventions is a critical period where an outside group can provide "air cover" while a candidate regroups.
Romney's campaign spent $18.1 on ads during the primary campaign but has gone dark since rival Rick Santorum suspended his campaign last week. Records show the campaign has not yet bought any television time to begin running ads again.
Restore Our Future, a pro-Romney super PAC founded by a team of his former aides, will have significant role in the general election. It was by far the most influential player in the Republican nominating contest, responsible for $36 million of the $100 million total that was spent on ads, according to the Smart Media Group, which tracks campaign spending.
Carl Forti, a founder of Restore Our Future and its spokesman, predicted that as many as 20 Republican-leaning super PACs would seek to oust Obama and would work together to figure out how to gain maximum traction from their ads.
"The outside groups are at our best when we do coordinate," said Forti, who was the political director for Romney's failed 2008 presidential bid and has been a Crossroads strategist since 2010. "We did so in the 2010 cycle and I expect and hope we will be able to coordinate again."
At least one super PAC backing Obama's re-election has been on the air attacking Romney.
Priorities USA Action, founded by two former Obama White House aides, went up with a new ad this week in Florida, Iowa, Ohio and Virginia depicting Romney as a heartless businessman who would cut benefits for the middle class to give tax cuts to the wealthy as president.
"Mitt Romney. If he wins, we lose," the ad says.
Still, Priorities is spending just under $700,000 on the current ad buy, reflecting the group's significant fundraising disadvantage compared to Republican-leaning groups. Priorities and its affiliated nonprofit group have raised just $10 million since last year, while American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS together have raised more than $100 million since 2010.
Priorities founder Bill Burton insists the group's fundraising has picked up and will provide a counterbalance to Republican super PAC ads.
"People are starting to see the right-wing money machine is raising a ton of money. President Obama's re-election is in doubt. People are really starting to turn in a way they hadn't before," Burton said.
The presidential campaigns and most super PACs have a midnight Friday deadline to disclose their March fundraising totals.
It's unclear whether other pro-Obama groups will run ads supporting his re-election. While labor unions have run ads supporting Obama and other Democratic candidates in past elections, AFL-CIO political spokesman Jeff Hauser said the labor federation planned to devote its resources to field organizing rather than television.
Associated Press writer Jack Gillum in Washington contributed to this report.
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