WASHINGTON — An independent arm of the Republican National Committee plans to spend $3 million on an ad campaign contrasting GOP presidential candidate John McCain to Democrat Barack Obama on energy security.
The ad will run in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin beginning Sunday. The ad represents the first of the RNC's independent expenditure operation.
The effort will be run by Republican media consultant Brad Todd of On Message Inc., a media and polling firm that worked on Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.
Todd said the ad will focus on energy, "which is emerging as a defining difference in the race for president."
By setting up a separate organization within the RNC, the national party can spend unlimited resources on behalf of McCain as long as it does not coordinate with the candidate's campaign.
McCain and the RNC have been raising money together for a joint victory fund that can that can be used to coordinate efforts between the national party and the McCain campaign. But the RNC is limited to spending no more than $19.1 million on coordinated activities.
The independent operation faces no such restriction, but can have no connection to the rest of the RNC or the McCain campaign. McCain has decided to accept public financing in the general election, which limits him to about $84 million in spending, a step that makes reliance on the national party even more important. Obama, who has shattered fundraising records, has decided to bypass the public money and raise his own instead.
"Following Barack Obama's decision to become the only major party presidential candidate in history to not adhere to campaign spending caps, the Republican National Committee has begun an independent expenditure campaign in accordance with FEC regulations," Todd said in a statement Wednesday.
The Democratic National Committee first aired ads critical of McCain in the spring.
McCain and Obama have been running their own general election ads. Obama has focused on reintroducing himself to voters through biographical ads that are airing in 18 states. McCain ran one ad that featured his family's military service and highlighted his five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam; he is now on the air in 11 states with an ad promoting his stance to control global warming.
The RNC's first salvo of the election comes as several outside groups take advantage of a lull in summer election activity to begin defining and prodding presidential and congressional candidates with their own multimillion-dollar advocacy campaigns.
Health care, gun rights and financial security will be among the dominant issues as unions and special interest organizations try to set the tone for the general election campaign and beyond.
Among the top efforts under way:
_ The AARP began airing a new ad on national cable Wednesday pressing Obama and McCain to keep talking about financial security for retirees and affordable health care. Beginning Monday, the ad will run in Orlando and Tampa, Fla.; Des Moines, Iowa; Manchester, N.H., and Detroit _ markets in key battleground states. The seniors' advocacy group, acting on behalf of a coalition called Divided We Fail, plans to spend more than $20 million on its bipartisan ad campaign through Labor Day.
_ A coalition of labor and liberal organizations next week plans to launch a $40 million campaign in key congressional districts to promote affordable health care coverage for all Americans. The group expects to spend $25 million in commercials in 45 states between now and Election Day in November. Its members include unions such as the Service Employees International Union, the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Democratic-leaning organizations such as the Center for American Progress, MoveOn.org, and the Campaign for America's Future.
_ The National Rifle Association plans to spend about $40 million to influence the presidential election, starting with a voter registration effort this summer and eventually moving to an ad campaign during the fall. The NRA has not yet endorsed a presidential candidate, but plans to air ads criticizing Obama's past support for restrictions on access to guns. The NRA also has had a tense relationship with Republican John McCain over his work on campaign finance laws that the NRA has opposed, concerned about the limits imposed on free speech.