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Obama’s ‘super PAC’ decision reflects new campaign reality

By Melanie Mason, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — The Obama campaign’s new, friendlier posture toward “super PACs” was the result of an “evolving conversation” on the role of outside money, senior campaign officials said Tuesday, pointing in particular to the dominance of candidate-specific super PACs in the Republican nomination fight and the coming deluge of money committed for the general election.

Echoing campaign manager Jim Messina’s message to supporters sent out Monday night, the officials said in a conference call with reporters the campaign will not “unilaterally disarm” in the face of ramped-up independent spending by Republicans.

“This is largely a reflection of the intensity on the Republican side,” an official said. “We knew Citizens United opened the door to an increase in spending. We had no idea that a half-billion dollars would come online for Republicans for one singular purpose: to defeat the president.”

The $500 million figure is what some experts estimate the mega-Republican groups American Crossroads (as well as affiliated nonprofit Crossroads GPS) and Americans for Prosperity will bring in over the course of the 2012 race.

The decision — which officials said was signed off on by the president — will allow campaign and White House officials to appear at events for Priorities USA Action, a super PAC founded last year by two former White House staffers. Those officials will not explicitly solicit donations for the group, nor will they appear in support of Priorities’ nonprofit arm, called Priorities USA, which does not have to disclose its donors. The president, vice president and first lady will not appear at Priorities USA Action events.

Campaign officials denied that the move undermined the president’s message — made most forcefully in the 2010 State of the Union address — about the dangers of the Citizens United decision, which indirectly allowed for the creation of independent groups that can raise unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and labor unions.

But the change in tactics has raised eyebrows among campaign finance reform advocates, who say the blessing of the campaign for donors to support the super PAC belies Priorities USA Action’s independence.

“The idea that the presidential candidate-specific super PACs are ‘independent’ from the presidential candidates and campaigns they are supporting is a complete fantasy,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of reform group Democracy 21, in a statement. “It is time to return to reality and put an end to these corrupting super PACs whose purpose is to circumvent and eviscerate the limits on contributions to candidates enacted to prevent corruption.”

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