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Swift Boaters Start Your Engines

If Obama is hit with an attack ad fusillade, this secretive GOP operative will likely be behind the onslaught.

| Thu Oct. 2, 2008 3:00 AM EDT
By this time in the 2004 election, John Kerry was already drowning in attack ads hurled at him from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. But this year, outside groups funded by millionaires or billionaires have been relatively dormant—thus far. As Election Day approaches such outfits are gearing up, and they appear to be biding their time until the final days of the campaign, when they can inflict the most damage. One of those groups is American Issues Project (AIP), which has been funded almost entirely by a single Texas billionaire and involves many of the leading players from the Swift Boat campaign. In August, it aired an ad attempting to highlight ties between Barack Obama and William Ayers, the 1960s radical who participated in at least several domestic bombings. The ad didn't land with Swift Boat-like power, but it signaled the opening salvo of what could be a nasty conclusion to this year's campaign.

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The man behind AIP, Tony Feather, could become one of the most significant players in the election. Feather, a longtime Republican operative, is not a household name and he rarely talks to the media. But his specialty—mounting stealth political advocacy campaigns—has played an outsized role in the last two presidential elections. Should Obama end up confronting a Swift Boat-style fusillade in the closing weeks of this campaign, the odds are that Feather will be one of the ops responsible for the onslaught.

A former executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, Feather is known for his fierce campaign tactics on behalf of candidates like John Ashcroft and former Missouri Attorney General Bill Webster. Feather ran Webster’s 1992 campaign for governor; Webster not only lost but went to prison on charges related to misusing his office for campaign purposes. Feather is also a compatriot of Karl Rove, whom he first met in 1974. The two are close enough that Rove at one point endorsed Feather's consulting firm on its website.

Politics has also made Feather a rich man. He started a handful of companies that specialize in "microtargeting" voters with direct mail, phone, and grassroots lobbying for GOP campaigns and big corporate clients. One of his companies sets up fake grassroots groups to give the appearance of public support for corporate legislative efforts. In 1999, Feather founded Feather Larson Synhorst with another GOP operative, Tom Synhorst, who is sometimes referred to as the "Johnny Appleseed of Astroturf."

FLS is responsible for many of those annoying robo-calls to voters that arrive during the days leading up to elections. The firm and its related entities, including the lobbying shop DCI Group, were among the biggest recipients of Republican National Committee money in 2004 election cycle and raked in nearly $27 million from Republican Party entities and candidates, including Bush’s reelection campaign.

Another one of Feather's companies, FLS-Connect, has a virtual monopoly on campaign phone work for the GOP, having worked for the state Republican parties in all 50 states, according to the company's website. In the past year, the RNC has paid FLS-Connect more than $9 million for its services. Since 2007, Feather's firms have earned more than $16 million from Republican Party entities, candidates, or affiliated interest groups like the National Rifle Association, according to CQ Moneyline. In June McCain Victory 2008, a PAC run by the RNC and a handful of state Republican committees, paid FLS-Connect $4,000 to provide "telemarketing" services.

Feather was the political director of the Bush/Cheney 2000 campaign, and was central to Republican efforts to get around new campaign finance laws banning soft money donations to the national parties. In 2001, Feather founded Progress for America, a nonprofit group that served as the de facto political arm of the Bush White House on everything from Social Security privatization to judicial nominees. In 2003, Feather stepped down from the group to work for the Bush campaign, but PFA lived on, spinning off a 527 group, the PFA Voter Fund, to spend unregulated money directly influence the 2004 election.

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