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Anti-Obama ad campaign hurts Republicans more than its intended target

A page from the proposed ad campaign linking President Barack Obama to the statements of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., in an undated handout photo.


There are still Republicans who think there is political mileage to be had out of President Barack Obama's past association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the Chicago pastor who once likened the 9/11 terrorist attacks to "America's chickens coming home to roost."

They are just hard to find outside the confines of a Fox News studio or the fringe right-wing groups that deal in conspiracy theories. Elsewhere, Rev. Wright is boring old news.

If there was a moment that Americans might have doubts about Mr. Obama's links to "black liberation theology," it seems to have long past. The President's likeability ratings have been off the charts for most of his first term, even though Americans express ambivalence about his job performance. His overall approval remains below 50 per cent.

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In short, Barack Hussein Obama just isn't that scary.

So, the news that a so-called Super PAC backed by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts was considering launching a $10-million (U.S.) ad campaign playing on the Obama-Wright connection struck most Washington insiders as the craziest idea they had heard in ages.

So crazy, in fact, some wondered whether it was a canard planted by pro-Obama forces.

It turns out a political consulting firm run by veteran Republican strategist Fred Davis did prepare a 54-page proposal that was obtained by The New York Times "through a person not connected to the proposal who was alarmed by its tone."

Mr. Davis's firm produced an ad during the 2008 campaign that linked Mr. Obama to Rev. Wright. But Republican nominee John McCain refused to run it. Sour grapes may have led to the idea's revival. The new proposal refers to Mr. McCain as "a crusty old politician" who ran a "confused" campaign.

The New York Times piece lit up American cable news and the internet on Thursday, requiring swift damage control from presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Mr. Ricketts and even TD Ameritrade, which was attacked by liberal bloggers.

"I want to make it very clear, I repudiate that effort. I think it's the wrong course for a PAC or a campaign," Mr. Romney said at a campaign stop on Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla. "I hope that our campaigns can respectively be about the future and about issues and about a vision for America."

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The likely GOP nominee came under heat later Thursday, however, for bringing up Rev. Wright in a February radio interview he gave to Fox host Sean Hannity. Mr. Hannity continues to talk about Rev. Wright, devoting long segments of his prime-time Fox News show on Wednesday and Thursday to a salacious new biography of Mr. Obama that is partly based on a long interview with Rev. Wright by author Edward Klein.

Canada's TD Bank Group owns 45 per cent of TD Ameritrade, the Omaha-based online brokerage. The bank conceded that the proposed ad campaign had ricocheted to Toronto.

"We have received a few e-mails from concerned customers and we have reiterated that the opinions expressed by Mr. Ricketts in no way reflect those of TD Bank Group," TD Bank spokesman Stephen Wright explained in an e-mail on Friday.

For his part, Mr. Ricketts, 70, put out a statement Thursday rejecting the ad proposal as incompatible with his focus on the economy and public spending.

Indeed, the Super PAC he is backing is called the Ending Spending Action Fund. Its president, Brian Baker, told MSNBC on Friday that his group asked Mr. Davis's firm "for a document based on ending spending, fiscal responsibility and jobs in the economy. This is far afield from that…We never asked for anything based on Reverend Wright."

"The world is full of bad ideas. This is one of them," Mr. Baker added. "This wasn't a proposal we requested at all. We never funded it."

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Still, the Ricketts affair hurt Republicans. The Obama campaign's chief strategist David Axelrod sought to tie the incident to Mr. Romney in an early morning tweet on Thursday.

"Stunning! Will Mitt stand up, as John McCain did? Or allow the purveyors of slime to operate on his behalf?," Mr. Axelrod tweeted.

In 2006, Mr. Obama conceded "stealing" the title for his political manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, from a sermon delivered by Rev. Wright, whom he called "my pastor" at the time. But he repudiated Rev. Wright in a seminal 2008 speech on race that marked a turning point in his campaign for the presidency.

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About the Author

Columnist Konrad Yakabuski writes on politics, policy and business for The Globe and Mail’s Comment section and Report on Business. More

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