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Republicans anxiously discourage racially-charged super PAC strategy

 

Republicans moved quickly on Thursday in hopes of distancing themselves from a strategy being weighed by a GOP-oriented super PAC, which threatened to inject racial politics into the 2012 presidential campaign.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney says he "repudiates" a PAC plan to attack President Obama's link to Rev. Jeremiah Wright, while saying he's disappointed in the Obama campaign's "character assassination" of him.

Mitt Romney’s campaign, joined by a slew of other GOP heavyweights, sought to disavow a strategy that was presented to Joe Ricketts -- the owner of the Chicago Cubs -- that would call for using a super PAC to launch aggressive attack ads against President Barack Obama. The plan, first reported by the New York Times, called for explicitly linking Obama to a former spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose occasionally angry sermons touched on themes of race.

Mary Altaffer / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to reporters while boarding a charter flight May 17 in Miami, Fla.

"I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they've described," Romney told the conservative blog Townhall.

An earlier statement by Matt Rhoades, Romney’s campaign manager, said the campaign would repudiate strategies that rely on personal attacks, though Rhoades made no specific reference toward Ricketts. During a gaggle this morning aboard his campaign plane, Romney told reporters that he hadn't seen the story.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd talks about a New York Times report, which suggests that a Republican Super PAC is considering a proposal to launch TV ads tying President Barack Obama to Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Also to Townhall, Romney expressed frustration that no attention is being paid to what he considers a negative campaign by Team Obama.

"It's interesting that we're talking about some Republican PAC that wants to go after the president [on Wright]," he said. "I hope people also are looking at what he's doing, and saying 'why is he running an attack campaign?  Why isn't he talking about his record?'"

NBC's Mark Murray and Domenico Montanaro discuss the day's top political news including the possibility that republicans may use President Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, in ads attacking the president. 

First Thoughts: When Willie Horton meets Jeremiah Wright

Romney has only one public campaign appearance today, where he could further address the controversy, but faced immediate blowback from the Obama campaign.

Jim Messina, the manager of the Obama re-election effort, said the report "reflects how far the party has drifted in four short years since John McCain rejected these very tactics," referring to the decision made in the 2008 Republican nominee's high command against attacking Obama along those lines.

"Once again, Gov. Romney has fallen short of the standard that John McCain set, reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his own party,” Messina said.

Steve Schmidt, a top aide to McCain’s presidential campaign, said that he was never prouder than when his candidate rejected the tactic. Invoking Wright wasn’t just the wrong thing to do, Schmidt said; it was the wrong strategy.

"Putting aside that this is the totally wrong thing to do for the country, using race as a political wedge releases a poison into the body politic, and it's totally unpredictable how it plays out," he said.

Mark McKinnon, a former aide to President George W. Bush, added of the proposed strategy: "Exhibit A of what is wrong with our politics today."

Romney campaign repudiates -- but punches back, too

The McCain campaign faced pressure to invoke Wright from some of Obama's most vociferous opponents on the right. Reports at the time indicated that, in particular, then-vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was particularly interested in linking Wright to Obama, who had been forced to address his ties to the controversial pastor during his primary fight against Hillary Clinton.

A spokesman for McCain said Thursday in a statement that the senator stands by his decision at that time.

"Senator McCain is very proud of the campaign he ran in 2008," said Brian Rogers, a spokesman for the Arizona senator. "He stands by the decisions he made during that race and would make them again today if he had it to do over."

Beyond the McCain campaign's judgment that making such an attack -- which would necessarily invoke race into the campaign against America's first black president -- it was judged to be bad politics.

"Would this have been a politically expedient thing for John McCain? No! Everybody knew who Jeremiah Wright was, and people who were deeply troubled by it were not Barack Obama voters," Schmidt said. "It would have been an utterly ineffective political attack."

The quick Republican backlash, though, reflects the extent to which the Obama campaign might gain traction from even the trial balloon associated with the rumored attack. It might mobilize voters, especially African-Americans, who Obama needs to help fuel his re-election, and could boost fundraising from angry supporters.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., even expressed a degree of amusement at the reported attack emanating from Ricketts, who most recently made a splash in politics by spending late in a Nebraska Senate primary on behalf of Deb Fischer, who eventually won.

"I hope they're as successful with this campaign as the Cubs are in baseball," Pelosi said on Capitol Hill, referring to the team's abysmal record.

Her counterpart, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, opted against condemning or even acknowledging the line of attack during his press conference, telling NBC News that "this election is going to be about the economy."

More broadly, the firestorm that erupted Thursday served as a testament to the outsize importance of super PACs in the 2012 campaign.

The Romney campaign had hoped to push a message about its relative fundraising prowess in April after releasing its figures to reporters early this morning. A new poll yesterday had also showed the former Massachusetts governor in a tie against Obama in Wisconsin, suggesting a narrowing battle for the White House.

"This is a function of the brokenness of the campaign finance system," Schmidt said. "One person's bad judgment -- Ricketts' -- has the potential to consume the dialog in the presidential campaign."

NBC’s Chuck Todd, Peter Alexander and Garrett Haake contributed to this report.