Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Some Conservatives Return To Old Argument

Published on Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Outside Advocacy Group Aims To Rally Support by Backing Bush's Initial Claims on Iraq
by Yochi J. Dreazen and John D. McKinnon
 
WASHINGTON – The television commercials are attention-grabbing: Newly found Iraqi documents show that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, including anthrax and mustard gas, and had "extensive ties" to al Qaeda. The discoveries are being covered up by those "willing to undermine support for the war on terrorism to selfishly advance their shameless political ambitions."

The hard-hitting spots are part of a recent public-relations barrage aimed at reversing a decline in public support for President Bush's handling of Iraq. But these advertisements aren't paid for by the Republican National Committee or other established White House allies. Instead, they are sponsored by Move America Forward, a media-savvy outside advocacy group that has become one of the loudest -- and most controversial -- voices in the Iraq debate.

While even Mr. Bush now publicly acknowledges the mistakes his administration made in judging the threat posed by Mr. Hussein, the organization is taking to the airwaves to insist that the White House was right all along.

Similar to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- the advocacy group that helped derail John Kerry's presidential campaign -- Move America Forward has magnified its reach by making small television and radio ad buys and then relying on cable- and local-television news outlets to give the commercials heavy coverage. Move America Forward has no discernible formal ties to the White House or the Republican National Committee, and the group says it operates independently from the Republican Party establishment. Still, the organization provides a clear benefit to the administration by spreading a pro-war message that goes beyond what administration officials can say publicly.

The effect of the ads hasn't been measured. Amid a simultaneous flurry of speeches by the president and a ramped-up RNC effort aimed at boosting the war, polls show that Mr. Bush's job-approval ratings, specifically his handling of the Iraq situation, have risen this month from all-time lows.

"The White House has really done a poor job of getting the message out, which is why we've had to step into the breach," says California-based Republican political strategist Sal Russo, one of the group's three founders. "They should do a better job of coordinating with those willing to get out and tell the story. We shouldn't be the only ones out here fighting."

The White House didn't return several calls seeking comment. A Republican National Committee spokesman declined to comment.

Move America Forward has raised more than $1 million, mainly in small donations, over the past two years. The group grew out of the successful 2003 effort to recall Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis. It was officially founded in 2004 by Mr. Russo, whose company provides office space for the organization; Melanie Morgan, a conservative San Francisco radio host; and Howard Kaloogian, a Republican former state assemblyman seeking the congressional seat of former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who resigned recently after admitting to taking bribes from defense contractors.

One of their early efforts was a campaign supporting John Bolton's contentious nomination as United Nations ambassador. Another involved backing U.S. detention policies at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by selling "I [Heart] Gitmo" bumper stickers.

When the White House was caught flat-footed this summer by the emergence of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a fallen soldier turned vocal administration critic, Move America Forward sent pro-war protesters to her camp in Texas and mounted a parallel bus tour of war supporters that culminated in a large rally in Washington. The counter-Sheehan campaign showed how the organization has raised its profile by staging well-publicized rallies and public events that attract substantial media coverage, even if the number of participants is relatively low.

In July, with the administration facing a torrent of negative media coverage of the war in Iraq, Move America Forward sent five conservative radio-talk-show hosts to U.S. military bases in Baghdad for a week of upbeat broadcasts. Ms. Morgan says that, during her time in Iraq, she rode up and down the so-called highway of death leading from Baghdad's airport seven times to prove to her listeners that it wasn't as dangerous as media reports suggested.

In addition to his Iraq political work in the U.S., Mr. Russo has an open-ended political-advertising contract with the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq for whom he produces advertisements that run in the U.S. seeking investment in Kurdistan. Some critics accuse him of having a vested financial interest in prolonging the U.S. presence there.

Liberals question how the group has maintained its status as a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, which requires strict nonpartisanship, given the anti-Democratic tone of its campaigns. The group's Web site, www.moveamericaforward.org1, for example, attacks the current chairman of the Democratic National Committee, referring to "Howard Dean types who only see a future of failure for this country."

"When you have people participating in partisan activities with nonprofit dollars, that's really something the IRS needs to look at," says Tom Matzzie, the Washington director of the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org, another frequent target for Move America Forward's rhetoric. "An organization with a shady tax status participating in partisan activities and saying things that aren't true is a rogue element in American politics."

An Internal Revenue Service spokeswoman declined to address the issue, saying that it is agency policy not to "comment on individual taxpayers or organizations." MoveOn is a "political action committee," meaning its donations aren't tax-deductible and must be disclosed.

Move America Forward officials acknowledge that the group's leadership is conservative, but insist they are nonpartisan and point out that the organization also has criticized Republicans. They say that the organization has no connections to the Bush administration or the Republican Party and has been unable to get meetings with White House personnel. And they say there is no conflict between the organization's advocacy work and Mr. Russo's financial ties to the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq.

"If you consider being pro-America and pro-troop to be Republican, then we'll proudly take that label," Ms. Morgan says. "But we've never been embraced by the White House or made part of a secret-right wing conspiracy."

Indeed, Ms. Morgan says she is baffled that the White House no longer makes the case that Mr. Hussein had WMDs. The White House dropped the claims after a variety of investigators found no evidence to substantiate them. But Ms. Morgan says her ads are justified, based on documents given to her in Iraq by an Iraqi general she identified as Abdul Qader Jassim, and on information from U.S. officials involved in the hunt for weapons there. She believes Mr. Hussein possessed WMDs, and that those weapons remain in Iraq today. It couldn't be ascertained that Mr. Jassim is a general and he couldn't be reached for comment.

The organization has kept up a steady drumbeat of pro-military and pro-war commercials in recent weeks. Its newest radio ads, timed to the holiday season, feature parents of service people killed in Iraq or on their way back to the country. In one spot, a woman described as military parent Deborah Johns observes that the "the terrorists know they can not defeat our military -- they can only win by beating down the morale of the American people."

Several Move America Forward officials hope to participate in the Iraq debate more actively than through mere advocacy. Mr. Kaloogian has an early fund-raising lead in the crowded field of Republicans hoping to succeed Mr. Cunningham, the former U.S. representative who resigned after admitting taking bribes. And Move America Forward Executive Director Robert Dixon, furious over a recent troop withdrawal resolution passed by the Sacramento City Council, is weighing a run for a seat in the hopes of getting the declaration reversed.

© 2005 Wall Street Journal

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