JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Mitt Romney swiftly and firmly distanced himself Thursday from a group exploring plans to target President Barack Obama's relationship with a controversial former pastor. But the revival of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a campaign issue momentarily placed race at the center of the presidential contest and showcased the independent groups playing a new role this year with big-money TV ads.
Republican Romney pushed back against a proposal being weighed by a conservative super PAC, Ending Spending Action Fund, to run a $10 million ad campaign drawing attention to racially provocative sermons Wright delivered at a church Obama attended in Chicago. But with super PACS operating under significantly looser campaign finance restrictions than in past presidential contests, there was no guarantee Romney's words would be heeded by other groups eager to make Wright — and, by extension, race — a factor in the campaign.
"I want to make it very clear: I repudiate that effort," Romney told reporters after a campaign stop in Florida. "I think it's the wrong course for a PAC or a campaign. I hope that our campaigns can be respectively about the future and about issues and about vision for America."
Romney indicated he was eager to shift the discussion back to jobs and the economy — bedrock issues on which he contends Obama is vulnerable.
Joe Ricketts, the billionaire benefactor of the super PAC, also distanced himself from the plan and announced he, too, would reject a racially focused approach.
"Not only was this plan merely a proposal — one of several submitted to the Ending Spending Action Fund by third-party vendors — but it reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take," the group's president, Brian Baker, said in a statement.
The New York Times first reported the group had commissioned a blueprint devised by Republican strategist Fred Davis and others titled "The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: the Ricketts Plan to End His Spending For Good." The Associated Press also obtained a copy of the 54-page blueprint, which outlined a TV, print and social media campaign casting new light on Obama and his "misguided mentor," Wright.
"Super PACs" have played a major role in this year's campaign already, spending many millions of dollars on ads assailing candidates in the Republican primaries — though with no legal connection to the rival contenders they aimed to help. Huge additional sums are expected to be spent before November by groups partial to Obama and Romney but barred from coordinating efforts with the candidates' campaigns.
Reaction from the Obama team was swift to the "Ending Spending" proposal.
"To launch a multimillion dollar divisive attack campaign is not what the American people want," White House Spokesman Jay Carney said. "There are moments when you have to stand up and say that's not the right way to go."
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, commenting before Romney denounced the plan in an interview with Townhall.com, accused the Republican of "reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his own party."
Messina noted that Republican Sen. John McCain, Obama's opponent in the 2008 presidential race, had rejected using Wright and Wright's sermons in that campaign. But Davis, a colorful Hollywood consultant, clearly wanted another chance to use the strategy against Obama.
"Our plan is to do exactly what John McCain would not let us do: show the world how Barack Obama's opinions of America and the world were formed," Davis' proposal said.
Davis' firm said in a statement Thursday that the document — which called for "hitting Barack right between the eyes" — was only a proposal and did not win Ricketts' approval.
Wright first emerged as an issue for Obama in the 2008 campaign when the pastor's sermons surfaced on television and online. In a 2003 sermon, Wright said black people should condemn the United States.
"The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing 'God Bless America.' No, no, no, God damn America, that's in the Bible for killing innocent people," Wright said at the time. "God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme."
Obama has credited Wright with leading him to Christianity, and Wright performed Obama's 1994 wedding to Michelle Obama and baptized the couple's two daughters. Obama took the name for his best-selling memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," from one of Wright's sermons.
The Wright controversy became a campaign problem for Obama, pushing him to deliver a major speech on race relations. He eventually severed his ties to Wright.
The AP left several messages for Wright on Thursday through his executive secretary at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago as well as through other intermediaries. There was no immediate reply.
For his part, Arizona Sen. McCain said Thursday he felt he had done the right thing on the Wright issue.
"I remain proud of our campaign and proud of what we were able to accomplish, and I would do it over again," McCain said at the Capitol. He said the matter seemed dead after Romney repudiated the proposal.
He shrugged when asked whether independent groups should take up matters such as Wright's remarks.
"It's a way for political operatives to continue to make money," McCain said.
Another top Republican, House Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, declined to be drawn into the debate.
"This election is going to be about the economy," he said when reporters asked him to react to the proposed ad campaign. "I don't know what these other people do or why they do it."
Unease with Obama's history with Wright has percolated among many Republicans for years, providing fodder for conservative television and talk radio.
But Republican strategists generally said they were put off by the Davis group's approach, reasoning it would meet resistance from independent voters likely to decide the outcome of the election. A majority of those voters approve of Obama personally even as they remain skeptical of his performance as president.
"Among those folks the personal incendiary stuff will backfire badly and will be seen as mean, personal and angry," Republican pollster Adam Geller said.
The story cast new attention on Ricketts, the founder of Nebraska-based TD Ameritrade Securities and patriarch of the family that bought the Chicago Cubs baseball team in 2009. Ricketts has been active in conservative politics for years, most recently helping Republican Deb Fischer win an upset victory this week in the Republican Senate primary in Nebraska.
The fallout from the Wright story appeared to rattle Ricketts' family.
Tom Ricketts, one of the elder Ricketts' four children and Cubs chairman, joined his father in rejecting what he called a "return to racially divisive issues" in the campaign.
"Our team and every other Major League Baseball team are great examples of people of diverse backgrounds working together toward a common goal," Tom Ricketts said.
His sister Laura Ricketts, an Obama contribution bundler and gay rights activist, released a statement saying, "The love of country was instilled in us by my father. We have different political views on how to achieve what is best for the future of American, but we agree that each of us is entitled to our own views."
Fouhy reported from New York. Associated Press writers Jim Kuhnhenn and Charles Babington in Washington, Joshua Funk and Margery Beck in Nebraska and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.
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