WASHINGTON — Democrats and the media have used the term so much that it's almost an article of faith. But the so-called "Republican attack machine" waiting with piles of unregulated cash to chew up Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is anything but.
Obama cited the threat of unregulated attack groups — called "527s" because they're authorized to raise unlimited cash under that section of the Internal Revenue Service code — to justify dropping his pledge to take public financing — along with its spending limits — for the general election campaign.
Yet there's no 2008 equivalent to the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which spent $22 million attacking Democrat John Kerry. Prominent groups and donors that played key roles in independent conservative 527 groups four years ago say they're sitting out this election. And while they've raised more than they did at this point four years ago, the independent pro-Republican groups still lag more than $50 million behind pro-Democratic groups.
Why? Analysts and Republican insiders point to several reasons:
_ Contributors are nervous about increased federal regulation.
_ Those who operate such groups fear a backlash, including from their better-paying corporate clients, who may not want to be associated with such attacks.
_ Few are eager to take such risks to help John McCain, who's bashed such efforts in the past and could again.
Of course, they still could jump in at any time, thanks to their ability to raise cash fast with a few huge checks.
"These groups can pop up overnight because they can take unlimited contributions from almost anybody," said Massie Ritsch, the communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that analyzes money in politics.
"Just because they're not doing anything now doesn't mean they won't jump out of the shadows."
At this stage four years ago, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had been up and running for more than a month, ripping Kerry's Vietnam record. It started airing its big ads that August.
Another pro-Republican group, Progress for America, aired its first ad criticizing Kerry's national-security record and credentials four years ago this week, the first $1 million salvo of what would be a $35 million barrage in key states.
Today, there are no such groups on the Republican side.
DCI Group, a public affairs firm that ran Progress for America in 2004, said this week that it won't do any political work this campaign and instead will focus entirely on clients including corporations, trade associations and nonprofits.
"We are not participating in 527 activities in the presidential election," DCI spokesman Geoff Basye said.
Freedom's Watch, another conservative group, so far has decided to skip the presidential campaign to focus on congressional contests. "We have no plans to get involved," spokesman Ed Patru said.
To be sure, Regnery Publishing — which in the summer of 2004 put out "Unfit for Command," a scathing look at Kerry's war record — is about to publish "The Case Against Barack Obama," a critical biography by conservative journalist David Freddoso. But a book isn't by a multimillion-dollar 527 group, and other authors plan pro-Obama books in coming months as well.
An effort to corral money for an independent group to be run by former White House political guru Karl Rove hasn't materialized so far.
"There have been a lot of conversations trying to get this off the ground," said one Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk about Rove.
Another Republican said the deal fell through when Texas oil billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who helped bankroll the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, refused to write a seven-figure check to get the group going. He, too, refused to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak about Pickens or Rove.
"Mr. Pickens has decided that he will not support any 527s involved in the presidential race this cycle and instead will focus his energies and his funding on a major, bipartisan, energy-focused public policy initiative that will be announced soon," said Pickens' spokesman, Jay Rosser.
The biggest conservative group involved so far is American Solutions for Winning the Future, chaired by former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich. It promises not attacks but a nonpartisan agenda on issues such as security and energy. It also promises to focus as much or more on local and state offices as on the presidency.
Why the lack of pointed, well-financed independent groups to go after Obama?
One explanation is that the Federal Election Commission ruled that groups such as the Swift Boat Veterans went too far in 2004.
The FEC is a relatively toothless tiger, levying small fines often well after a campaign. And it hasn't put out concrete guidelines for this campaign. It got a quorum to meet only last week after a deadlock between the White House and Congress over an appointment was broken. Still, it poses a problem.
"The nervousness they're feeling is about what they can say and do," Ritsch said. "The FEC found the Swift Boat activity to be illegal, saying you cannot be so specific about supporting or opposing candidates if you're taking unlimited money. It has to be about issues. The question now is to what extent can they mention candidates?"
Another reason is fear of a backlash. Some contributors — or nonpolitical clients of a firm that manages a 527 group — might not want to be associated with attacks that could backfire.
Finally, many contributors are wary about bankrolling a high-profile campaign to help McCain, who's long criticized unregulated money in politics.
"Why stick your neck out for him?" said one Republican operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely criticize his party's presumptive nominee.
Contributions to pro-Republican independent groups rose during the first 16 months of the campaign to $80 million, compared with $46 million in the same period four years ago, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The donations appear to be spread out more among smaller groups, and none has launched an anti-Obama campaign despite spending $68 million.
As they did in 2004, the Republican groups trail the pro-Democratic groups in cash raised. Yet pro-Democratic groups also are seeing some reluctance this year to jump into the campaign, perhaps thinking they're not needed given Obama's prodigious fundraising or perhaps bowing to his preference that they send money to him instead.
Contributions to independent, pro-Democratic 527 groups in the first 16 months of this campaign totaled $131 million, down from $146 million during the same period of the 2004 campaign.
This week, the largest pro-Democratic 527 group, the Fund for America, headed by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, said it was stopping operations.
ON THE WEB
More on the Center for Responsive Politics.
More on Freedom's Watch.
More on Gingrich's group.