Super PACs Defining the 2012 Presidential Race

Special political action committees will play a key role in shaping the 2012 presidential race by going on the attack.

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Keep your eye on the Super PACs.

These special political action committees are growing in power and will play a key role in shaping the 2012 presidential race by going on the attack.

Iowa was a case in point. "Restore Our Future," the Super PAC run by supporters of front-runner Mitt Romney, waged a relentless campaign against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, caricaturing him as a hypocrite and Washington insider. The PAC's attack ads helped to topple Gingrich from the top tier in the Republican presidential nominating caucuses in Iowa this week.

[See political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

The Super PACs were authorized by a Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. Such groups can spend unlimited sums and their contributors are partly shielded from public disclosure. They can work on behalf of candidates but are forbidden from coordinating with those candidates.

However, critics say the Super PACs can simply go on the attack without the need for any coordination and thereby greatly help their favored candidates.

This is what happened in Iowa. The pro-Romney Super PAC spent what National Journal estimates was $2.7 million in ads, many savaging Gingrich, who remains outraged by what happened. He told MSNBC that Romney and his backers "ran a deliberately negative and dishonest campaign...This particular approach, I think, has nothing to do with the Citizens United case. It has to do with a bunch of millionaires getting together to run a negative campaign and Governor Romney refusing to call them off and refusing to be honest about it."

[Surging Santorum Gets His Own Super PAC]

But campaign reformers such as Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona say Gingrich's treatment had everything to do with the Citizens United case because the ruling unleashed a vast amount of money into the campaign with little or no accountability and few limits.

An indication of the Super PAC potential is how much they have proliferated. Not only have they been formed to boost individual candidates such as Romney and President Obama, they have also been created to promote ideologies and political philosophies. For example, American Crossroads is a well-heeled Super PAC founded by Karl Rove, the former political architect for President George W. Bush and other conservative strategists. American Crossroads is expected to do what it can to defeat President Obama.

  • See political cartoons on Newt Gingrich.
  • See photos of the 2012 GOP candidates.
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