A proposal from a GOP-leaning super-PAC to run attack ads against President Obama based on his relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was floated and rejected within hours on Thursday.
Both Mitt Romney and Obama's campaign denounced the ad proposal after it was reported in The New York Times Thursday morning. On Thursday afternoon, the Ending Spending Action Fund super-PAC, run by billionaire Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts, put out a statement rejecting the plan to spend $10 million to link Obama and Wright in a "big, attention-arresting way."
Romney personally repudiated the super-PAC's plan in an interview with the blog Town Hall.
"I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they've described. I would like to see this campaign focus on the economy, on getting people back to work, on seeing rising incomes and growing prosperity — particularly for those in the middle class of America," he said.
The Obama campaign was first to respond to the report, accusing Romney of reacting "tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership."
“This morning's story revealed the appalling lengths to which Republican operatives and super-PACs apparently are willing to go to tear down the President and elect Mitt Romney. The blueprint for a hate-filled, divisive campaign of character assassination speaks for itself," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina in a statement.
Romney, in his response, suggested that the president's campaign could be using the issue to distract from the economy. He also doubled down on his campaign's claim that the Obama team already participated in character assassination.
"I think what we've seen so far from the Obama campaign is a campaign of character assassination," Romney said to Town Hall. "I hope that isn't the course of this campaign. So in regards to that PAC, I repudiate what they're thinking about. ... It's interesting that we're talking about some Republican PAC that wants to go after the president [on Wright]; 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?' "
Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades released a statement earlier Thursday that noted "President Obama’s team said they would ‘kill Romney,’ and, just last week, [Obama adviser] David Axelrod referred to individuals opposing the president as ‘contract killers.’ It’s clear President Obama’s team is running a campaign of character assassination. We repudiate any efforts on our side to do so."
Even though the super-PAC rejected plans to run the ads, it has brought Wright, and memories about his controversial sermons, back to the forefront of the presidential race.
Wright's sermons, which included controversial remarks about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, were a huge campaign issue in the 2008 race.
Several Republican operatives were angry that Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP nominee that cycle, did not use Wright in his attacks against Obama.
The proposal by Ricketts's super-PAC noted the plan would “do exactly what John McCain would not let us do,” according to the Times. Their proposal for the attack campaign includes arguing the president was deceitful in presenting himself as a "metrosexual, black Abe Lincoln." The full campaign would include television ads, outdoor billboards at the site of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., and aerial banners over the convention site.
Messina, in his statement, noted McCain's reluctance to use the Wright issue in 2008, saying the super-PAC's proposal "reflects how far the party has drifted in four short years since John McCain rejected these very tactics. Once again, Governor 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.”
McCain issued a statement Thursday saying he stood by his campaign strategy.
“Senator McCain is very proud of the campaign he ran in 2008. He stands by the decisions he made during that race and would make them again today," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.
While Romney's campaign distanced itself from the super-PAC, the former Massachusetts governor had not been afraid of bringing up Wright in the past.
"I’m not sure which is worse, him listening to Reverend Wright or him saying that we must be a less Christian nation," Romney said in February when asked by Sean Hannity about comments from Obama that the United States is not a "Christian nation."
Under federal election law, the Romney campaign cannot directly coordinate with outside political groups, meaning super-PACs operate independently of the campaigns. However, it's not unusual for super-PACs to take clues from the candidates.
Super-PACs were not an issue for McCain in 2008. Their status changed in the wake of the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case.
Ricketts, the founder of Ameritrade, recently used the super-PAC to spend $200,000 on Nebraska's Senate race; in 2010 he spent $600,000 aimed at defeating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
The super-PAC was waiting for him to sign off on the ad campaign proposal, the Times reported.
The concept for the ad campaign was developed by Republican media guru Fred Davis, who made the 2008 ad comparing Obama to Paris Hilton and unsuccessfully pushed McCain to attack Obama for his ties to Wright. He's also known for the "Demon Sheep" ad that went viral two years ago.
Davis, in a statement, emphasized his plan was merely a proposal.
"The document referred to in today's New York Times story was one proposal prepared and submitted by Strategic Perception Inc. The Ricketts family never approved it, and nothing has happened on it since the presentation," he said.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), widely speculated to be among the top Republican vice presidential candidates, also repudiated the proposal on Thursday, saying the Romney campaign and supporters should steer clear of attack ads featuring Wright.
"I just think it's a time for us to figure out how to come together as a country to solve these big problems," Portman said, according to the Ohio News Network.
— Cameron Joseph contributed
This story was originally posted at 9:29 a.m. and has been updated. This story was last updated at 12:23 p.m.