In a clear signal that the 2012 presidential election is gearing up to be a monumental slug-fest, the Obama campaign told big-money donors late Monday evening to begin writing their checks to Priorities USA, a top Democratic "super-PAC," and make the president's reelection effort competitive with its deep-pocketed GOP opponents.
The president's blessing of the super-PAC comes nine months before Election Day and gives Obama's top bundlers the opportunity to help jump-start the outside group, which donors had previously avoided.
Obama — who has kept a distance from the outside group, which supports his reelection bid — plans to send campaign officials, Cabinet officers and senior aides to super-PAC events on his behalf. Campaign officials said Obama himself, Vice President Biden and their spouses would not be appearing at the group's fundraising events.
"We decided to do this because we can't afford for the work you're doing in your communities, and the grassroots donations you give to support it, to be destroyed by hundreds of millions of dollars in negative ads," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina wrote in an email to supporters late Monday night. "It's a real risk."
In the email, Messina said the super-PAC that supports Mitt Romney raised $30 million from fewer than 200 contributors. He said 96 percent of what the group has spent to date — roughly $18 million — has been on attack ads.
At the same time, more than 1.3 million Americans have donated to the Obama campaign, with the average donation at $55 and 98 percent at $250 or less, Messina said.
"The stakes are too important to play by two different sets of rules," Messina said. "If we fail to act, we concede this election to a small group of powerful people intent on removing the president at any cost."
The move comes a day after Obama told NBC's Matt Lauer that he would "love to take some of the big money out of politics."
But Obama added, "Unfortunately, right now, partly because of Supreme Court rulings and a bunch of decisions out there, it is very hard to get your message out without having some resources."
Republicans quickly criticized the decision, arguing the president had shifted his position.
"Yet again, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWe must eliminate nuclear weapons, but a 'No First Use' Policy is not the answer Building back a better vice presidency Jill Biden unveils traditional White House holiday décor MORE has proven he will literally do anything to win an election, including changing positions on the type of campaign spending he called nothing short of a 'threat to our democracy,' " Joe Pounder, an official with the Republican National Committee, said in an email. "In less than 24 hours, Obama has gone from decrying super-PACs in the morning to opening up the door to their money during a conference call with his big-money donors in the middle of the night."
Messina wrote on Monday that the president still opposes the 2010 Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allowed unlimited and undisclosed funding into campaign politics and led to the advent of the super-PAC. Messina said Obama would continue to work to neutralize that decision. In the meantime, he was forced to fight fire with fire, the campaign said.
During the 2008 race, Obama made clear that he would not accept assistance or support from outside groups.
And to date, the president kept Priorities USA — run by two former White House aides — at arm's length, doing very little to indicate any support.
But that all changed Monday after Obama approved the plan and it was presented to the campaign's National Finance Committee.
"This decision will help fill a hole on our side," Messina said. "But it's only one part of the overall effort.
"It's my hope that by making this decision and doing what we can to neutralize the onslaught of special-interest money, we can ensure that the decisive factor in this election won't be an unprecedented flood of special-interest spending and the outcome will be back in the hands of ordinary Americans," he said.
This story was updated at 8:21 a.m.