How do politicians reach their audiences?

The problem: So-called 527 or independent advocacy groups — remember Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004? — are starting to run partisan television ads critical of the presidential candidate they would like to see lose the election. But with both Barack Obama and John McCain publicly opposed to these groups, how do they reach their audiences without provoking or damaging the candidate they’d like to see win?

“These ads can open a debate that neither candidate wants to have,” cautions Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of nonpartisan organization Campaign Media Analysis.

Case No. 1: Defenders of Wildlife political action arm attacks GOP veep nominee Sarah Palin’s support for aerial hunting, “a practice that has been condemned by conservationists, scientists and many hunters alike,” the org says.

The visual: Exhausted from being chased by plane, a wolf collapses amid blood spatters on snow as it is shot from above.

The goal: Portray Palin as extreme on guns and a foe of conservationists/environmentalists, not to mention anyone with a sense of fair play or a weak stomach.

The risk: It could alienate blue-collar Democrats who hunt, a constituency that has yet to embrace the Obama candidacy en masse. Could also throw gasoline on the fire of the gun-rights debate, usually a loser for the left.

The response: “We don’t feel we’re in conflict at all (with the Obama campaign) because we always try to address a specific target audience on issues that are important,” says William Lutz, senior director of the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, which produced the ad. In fact, that specific aud — conservationists and environmentalists in battleground states like Ohio, Michigan and Florida — “should be helpful to the campaign,” Lutz continues. “And the donor response so far has been off the charts.” Which means more money for ads in other battleground states.

Case No. 2: Planned Parenthood attacks McCain campaign ad accusing Obama of supporting sex education for kindergarteners.

The visual: Still photos of smiling children — and then of a lone girl with her head in her hands — as a voiceover talks ominously of sex predators, which the ad makes clear was the real target of legislation that Obama (and Planned Parenthood) supported in the Illinois Legislature.

The goal: Paint McCain, whom the ad accuses of overstretching the truth in this case, as a man “who will say anything to get elected.”

The risk: Because of Planned Parenthood’s long association with abortion rights, almost anything the org does is a potential target for abortion opponents, and the volatile debate over the “A” word is one the Obama campaign would prefer to avoid even more than the one over gun rights.

The response: “We wanted to do two things — set the record straight and show that McCain looks like he’s willing to say anything to get elected,” says Tait Sye, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood. In no way is the ad meant to hijack any storylines or messages the Obama campaign might be trying to assert, Sye continues. “We are talking about issues that are important regarding women’s health, and when we do that, voters respond.”

Case No. 3: American Issues Project, a conservative nonprofit corporation, hits Obama for the tie between him and William Ayers, a former lefty radical or “domestic terrorist,” according to AIP.

The visual: Images of Obama speaking intercut with images of Ayers and anti-establishment attacks his group carried out in the early 1970s, as a voice asks why Obama would describe Ayers, as he recently did, as “respectable” and “mainstream.”

The goal: By opening with the text, “How much do you know about Barack Obama?,” the ad seeks to link the candidate to the extreme left wing in the minds of undecided middle-of-the-road independents.

The risk: Where to begin? First, AIP has some alums from the Swift Boaters, whose ads McCain publicly rebuked and repudiated on behalf of John Kerry back in 2004. Second, McCain has his own questionable past associations (a la the Keating Five), which his campaign would not care to revisit. Third, by using relatively old news (the Ayers connection came up during the primaries), the ad could look like an attempt to recycle an allegation that never got any traction — something the Obama campaign has already been accusing the McCain campaign of doing in general.

The response: “Well, at least that bolsters the argument that our efforts aren’t coordinated,” AIP prexy Ed Martin says of the McCain campaign and his org. “I don’t think we’re particularly worried about reactions from McCain or others. We’re going to continue putting out ads that get a discussion going on issues we think are important. If the McCain campaign doesn’t want to talk about Ayers, we’re willing to take the risk because we think it’s important.”

Martin was not part of the Swift Boats group, though two former members are part of AIP. “We don’t comment on what members do specifically, but the American Issues Project is designed for the long haul,” whereas the Swift Boaters were aimed exclusively at Kerry’s candidacy. As far as credibility goes — the Swift Boat group was criticized for relying more on truthiness than truth — Martin says, “We will rise or fall on the ads we do and how we express ourselves. You can dispute how the facts are characterized in our ad, but not the facts.”

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