WASHINGTON – Former White House aides are joining Republican fundraisers in bankrolling a $15 million, five-week advertising campaign putting pressure on lawmakers whose backing of President Bush's Iraq war strategy may be wavering.
The group, Freedom's Watch, launched the ads Wednesday, even as Bush delivered a renewed call for keeping U.S. forces in Iraq. The money will pay for ad placements on national cable and local television stations as well as on radio and the Internet.
The ads will run in 20 states and will urge viewers to ask their member of Congress to stand by Bush's plan. Organizers of the effort would not identify the targeted lawmakers, but a review of the initial TV ad placements — done by a group opposed to the war — shows most of them are in Republican congressional districts.
The ads could affect presidential politics as well. The group is paying for a substantial ad placement in Iowa, the leadoff caucus state in the presidential nominating contest. While aimed at members of Congress, the ads will compete for air time with presidential spots and could influence voter attitudes as candidates seek their support.
The ads feature soldiers wounded in the war or family members of soldiers killed in the war calling on lawmakers to support the current deployment of troops.
"The global war on terror requires American engagement, and if we surrender now, then I think it makes a more dangerous United States and a more dangerous world," said Bradley A. Blakeman, a lawyer and former White House official who is president of the new group. He said the ads are timed in anticipation of a progress report next month by Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq.
Freedom's Watch was organized as a nonprofit organization under IRS rules and is not required to identify its donors or the amounts they give. The group named some of its financial backers but Blakeman said others wished to remain out of the public eye.
Among those publicly behind the effort are billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a fundraiser for Bush and chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., and conservative philanthropist John M. Templeton Jr. of Bryn Mawr, Pa. Both men have been major contributors to conservative causes. Also backing Freedom's Watch are top Republican donors Anthony Gioia, Mel Sembler and Howard Leach, all former ambassadors in the Bush administration. Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer is a founding member of the group.
An analysis of the ad placements by Americans United for Change, a group opposed to the war, found Freedom's Watch ads in 33 markets, many of them represented by moderate Republican senators and House members, including Iowa, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee and South Dakota.
The ads also are running in Kentucky, New Mexico and Ohio where Republicans Sens. Mitch McConnell, Pete Domenici and George Voinovich are being targeted in ads by war opponents.
Blakeman, a former deputy assistant to Bush for appointments and scheduling, declined to discuss the ad placements.
"The main mission is to educate not only the member, but also their constituents that surrender is not an option," he said.