Groups attacking McCain could misfire

Democratic-supporting nonprofits hoping to help the party may hurt the candidate in the end

With Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) still battling for the Democratic nomination, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is free to begin his general election campaign without an opponent. However, he won't be unchallenged, as some Democratic-supporting nonprofit organizations have begun attacking the Republican nominee's positions.

Yet, communications experts warn these groups might not succeed in the effort to bloody McCain's campaign.

For instance, the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the US, has dedicated a section of its Web site to detailing McCain's policies and how they may negatively affect union members, launching a campaign aimed at 13 million voters in 23 states. Additionally, the Sierra Club and Campaign to Defend America have gone on the McCain offensive.

The goal behind the AFL-CIO's effort is to force the Arizona senator to talk about issues that he would otherwise avoid, says Steve Smith, AFL-CIO spokesman.

"I think we're seeing what a lot of people are seeing right now, that there's a tremendous void in terms of pressing McCain on issues while the Democrats are doing battle for the nomination," he says. "We don't want McCain to have a free pass for a month, or two or three months, and not have to talk about the issues, and that's why we've come out in the campaign."

Smith says the campaign will be effective by having millions of American citizens learn the union's opinions on where McCain stands on certain issues.

"It's certainly going to bode well for our endorsed candidate once we have time to educate [voters] clearly on McCain," Smith says. "We're the only organization out there, at least of comparable size, [that is] doing a campaign on economic issues, so I think it's going to have a tremendous effect."

However, such a campaign may end up having a much different effect than AFL-CIO intends it to.

It can also lead to an unintentional gaffe that the eventual Democratic candidate may have to clean up, explains Bill McIntyre, VP of strategic communications and public affairs at Grassroots Enterprise, and a former chief national spokesman for the National Rifle Association.

"The reality is this: It's like having your little sister stick up for you. It's like if the captain of the football team, the jock or whoever, is tied up in detention or some other issue, and the little sister steps up against the class bully or some other opponent," he explains. "Ultimately, it's not going to be very effective, and it might lead to some embarrassment, and [third-party groups] can end up creating some blowback and some talking points, and it may come back to hurt the very candidate they're trying to support."

Additionally, most unaffiliated voters and Democrats are likely paying attention to the current nomination fight going on between Obama and Clinton, says Craig Fuller, EVP of APCO Worldwide.

"I don't know if people are paying that much attention to the differences between candidates on issues, particularly between the Democratic and Republican candidates. McCain can go out and speak about issues that he cares about, and try to define himself, but I don't know if [these organizations'] attacks are going to be paid that much attention to," he says.

Organizations that are technically unaffiliated with a campaign - although in step ideologically - are also at a disadvantage in making the news with its support, because the public is generally already aware of its political leanings, says Ed Cafasso, SVP and MD at MS&L.

"Legitimate third parties have [a reputation], unlike what we saw in 2004 with the [Swift Boat Veterans for Truth] type of attacks, [those] were made by groups that had no reputation of their own and no credibility of [its] own," he explains. "They literally came out of nowhere, threw a grenade, and stepped back to watch the carnage. Groups, [such as] third-parties with long track records of service, are relatively well known."

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