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Obama Scales Back Campaign Finance Criticism After Claims Decried as 'Baseless'

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President Obama speaks at a rally in Philadelphia Oct. 10. (AP Photo)

President Obama on Sunday scaled back his claim that Republicans are taking foreign money for their campaigns, using slightly more ambiguous language at a rally in Philadelphia after GOP strategists warned Democrats against telling "baseless" lies to win votes. 

Democrats had been directing their criticism at the Chamber of Commerce and other GOP-supporting groups. But after the latest Democratic National Committee ad outright claimed "it appears they're even taking secret foreign money to influence our elections," White House senior adviser David Axelrod acknowledged that "no one knows" where the money is coming from. 

Obama, speaking at a Philadelphia rally Sunday, hammered the campaign finance theme but left open the question of whether anybody is violating U.S. law by using foreign money. 

"There's no question the other side sees a chance to get back in the driver's seat," Obama said. "They are being helped along this year by special interest groups that are spending unlimited amounts of money on attack ads ... just attacking people without ever disclosing who's behind all these attack ads. You don't know. It could be the oil industry. It could be the insurance industry. It could even be foreign-owned corporations. You don't know because they don't have to disclose." 

The president had left less wiggle room during a rally in Maryland Thursday, when he referenced the Chamber of Commerce, saying it was paying for ads against Democrats while taking money from "foreign corporations." 

"So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections, and they won't tell you where the money for their ads come from," Obama said. 

Then Obama twice mentioned GOP strategist Karl Rove by name at an Illinois rally, saying "two groups funded and advised by Karl Rove have outspent the Democratic Party 2 to1 in an attempt to beat" Democratic Senate nominee Alexi Giannoulias. 

Then the Democratic National Committee rolled out the new ad accusing Rove, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and the Chamber of Commerce of "stealing our democracy." 

The ad accused them of "spending millions from secret donors to elect Republicans to do their bidding in Congress." 

The accusations drew a sharp rebuke from Rove, a Fox News contributor. 

"Have these people no shame? Does the president of the United States have such little regard for the office that he holds that he goes out there and makes these kind of baseless charges against his political enemies?" Rove said on "Fox News Sunday." "This is just beyond the pale. How dare the president do this." 

Rove and Gillespie helped found the political group American Crossroads; Rove also helped found Crossroads GPS. 

But Rove said those groups raise money legally, that it's "inaccurate" to say he's personally writing out checks to the groups and that American Crossroads reports its donors. In a heated retort, Rove said Sunday that the DNC ad effectively accused them all of a criminal violation of U.S. law -- only without proof. 

"They have not one shred of evidence to back up that baseless lie. This is a desperate and I think disturbing trend by the president of the United States to tar his political adversaries with some kind of, you know, enemies list unrestrained by any facts or evidence whatsoever," Rove said. 

The Chamber of Commerce accusation apparently stemmed from a report last week by the Center for American Progress-affiliated Think Progress. The report claimed the Chamber was generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign money every year and questioned whether those funds were going toward its multimillion-dollar political operations. 

But the Chamber adamantly denies this, saying foreign money is separated from its U.S. political activity. The Chamber said in a statement Sunday that the DNC ad is "ridiculous and false." Rove also said the White House cannot back up its accusation. 

Asked about the charge, Axelrod put the onus on groups like the Chamber of Commerce to prove foreign money is not influencing the election. 

"No one knows where the money's coming from," he said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "Why not simply disclose where this money is from and then all these questions will be answered?" 

But Gillespie said the idea that the White House could lob charges and then leave it up to the accused to refute them is an "unbelievable mentality." 

"David Axelrod is either woefully uninformed or willfully deceptive and dishonest," Gillespie said. 

He said Obama was basing his original charge off a report from a group, the Center for American Progress, "that does not disclose its donors." 

"This is the kind of abuse of power in a lot of ways ... that most Americans are rejecting," Gillespie said.