WASHINGTON -- With a little less than a month to go until the first votes are cast, candidates in the crowded Republican presidential primary -- or rather their supportive super PACs -- have begun the advertising assault on each other.
Examine who is attacking whom, and you can see which candidates the others consider their real rivals for the nomination.
So far, almost all of the missiles have been fired by super PACs supporting former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz or Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Real estate mogul Donald Trump and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have also come under attack, but neither their campaigns nor supportive outside groups have spent money to return fire yet. (Trump's case is complicated by the fact that he receives so much free media time that he doesn't really need to run ads.)
Bush's Right to Rise super PAC is the busiest combatant at this juncture with ads criticizing Trump, Rubio, Cruz, Kasich and Christie. Once a frontrunner in the polls with the establishment's blessing, Bush is now stuck in the single digits in national and early-voting state averages. He's no longer even the leading establishment candidate in the race. This is particularly bad news for his hopes in New Hampshire, where Republican candidates closer to the center have historically performed well.
Right to Rise began its attacks in mid-December with a spot that looked negatively on Trump, Rubio and Cruz. The ad ran in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, with smaller buys elsewhere. Additional spots in December hit Rubio, Kasich and Christie in Iowa and New Hampshire -- and then Trump as well. The new year brought attacks on Rubio in Iowa and South Carolina and then Kasich and Christie in New Hampshire. (See one such ad below.)
Rubio's super PAC, Conservative Solutions PAC, responded with an ad hitting Bush in Iowa. But the billionaire-backed group has begun to put most of its weight behind attacks on Christie, with a large ad buy in New Hampshire to begin 2016.
The ads appear aimed to stall Christie's rise in the New Hampshire polls and protect Rubio's very precarious hold on second place. Currently, Rubio, Cruz and Christie are closely clustered in second, third and fourth in the HuffPost Pollster average, with Christie having the recent momentum. Trump has led by 10 or more points in New Hampshire since the end of August.
Even Kasich is ahead of Bush in New Hampshire -- fifth versus sixth place -- though the Ohio governor is dawdling near the back of the pack in national polls. The pro-Kasich New Day for America has spent most of its time drumming up free media for its anti-Trump ads, but it has also run a spot in New Hampshire contrasting the governor with Trump, Rubio and Christie. The ad never mentions those candidates by name; it simply shows them in a split image alongside Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton while a narrator says, "Unlike some, he's proven he can do the job."
Additionally, the pro-Kasich group has distributed anti-Christie flyers to New Hampshire voters.
Neither Christie's campaign nor his America Leads super PAC has responded to these hits with their own paid ads yet. Instead, the campaign came out with an online video attacking the attacks -- specifically the ones from Rubio's super PAC. "Significant division in the Republican Party leads to the same awful result: Hillary Rodham Clinton," Christie says in the video, which was posted Wednesday.
Among all the candidates with good poll position in early-voting states, Cruz has been notably quiet on the airwaves. His outside armada has spent little on television advertising, sometimes to the chagrin of his other supporters. Keep the Promise I (not to be confused with Keep the Promise II and III) is the first pro-Cruz super PAC to launch attacks on another candidate.
The group ran an ad in Iowa mocking a Rubio video in which he discusses fantasy football and suggesting that the Florida senator lacks the gravitas to defeat terrorist threats like the self-described Islamic State.
Cruz's rise to first place in Iowa has even sparked reactions from the campaigns and supporters of the last two winners of that state's caucus -- although neither of those gentlemen looks likely to challenge in the actual voting.
This month, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, winner of the 2012 Iowa caucus, released an ad that featured Cruz reading from Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham from the Senate floor. (In further grim news for Santorum, that probably violates rules prohibiting the use of congressional floor video in campaign advertising.)
A super PAC supporting former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the 2008 Iowa caucus winner, financed ads attacking Cruz in November and December. Pursuing America's Greatness also hit Rubio in November.
Then there are the anti-Cruz ads run by two nonprofits with ties to the head of Huckabee's super PAC, Nick Ryan. Both the Iowa Progress Project and America's Renewable Future, an ethanol lobby group, have attacked Cruz in television and radio spots for his opposition to subsidies for renewable fuel like ethanol -- which is made from Iowa's cash crop: corn. All of the ads from these two groups are framed as issue advertising (they stop short of calling on voters to oppose Cruz), but they are clearly negative. And they have all been posted to the YouTube page of Ryan's Concordia Group.
Missing from this back-and-forth are some once-notable candidates: retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul. The lack of venom directed their way indicates how little competitive threat they now pose in the GOP race, at least in the other candidates' eyes.
The recent ad launches are slightly ahead of the timeline set in the previous presidential election. At this point in the 2012 Republican presidential cycle -- 26 days prior to the Iowa caucus -- the biggest super PAC attacks were just beginning.
Restore Our Future, the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC, began its advertising assault on Newt Gingrich with 25 days left before Iowa. The group wound up pouring $3.4 million into a scorched-earth campaign against Gingrich in that one state. It marked the first demonstration of what a single-candidate super PAC with close connections to a presidential candidate could accomplish: Romney just barely lost first to Santorum, while Gingrich had to settle for fourth.
Gingrich's fall in Iowa led to his supporters starting their own super PAC, Winning Our Future. The group raised millions from billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson to fund an assault in South Carolina on Romney's record as a corporate raider closing down businesses and firing workers. That helped Gingrich win the South Carolina primary and paved the way for the Democratic narrative of Romney as avatar of the 1 percent.
If 2012 is instructive, the residents of Iowa and New Hampshire should brace for a month of brutal attack ads.
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