With Romney on the Ropes, GOP Super PACs Keep Firing Away

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Lunch is served as Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign fundraising event, the first of which reporters' cameras were allowed in, at The Grand America in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Sept. 18, 2012.

As Mitt Romney‘s campaign tries to regain control of its message and allay growing conservative doubts about whether he can beat Barack Obama, Republican super PACs are watching carefully and gauging how they can best steer their resources in the campaign’s home stretch. For now, however, they’re far from bailing on the GOP nominee.

American Crossroads, the grand daddy of conservative super PACs co-founded and advised by Karl Rove, raised some eyebrows yesterday by announcing its first ad in a House campaign. Crossroads is targeting Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop of Long Island, NY. A sign that Crossroads is turning its artillery away from Obama and towards the battle for Congress, perhaps? 

Not so, Crossroads CEO Steven Law tells TIME. “We placed a buy in one Congressional district. At the same time, we placed a $6.2 million buy this morning” in presidential battleground states. (Law says that Crossroads added another $1.7 million to the buy today to match Obama campaign ad buys in Florida and Ohio).

Law concedes that Romney has hit “a rough patch over the last few weeks,” but insists Crossroads is not dialing back its support for him. “In all the states that Romney needs to win, or could win, he is either inside the margin of error or close to it,” Law says. “Obama has not closed the sale with independents. He’s made progress, but he has not closed the sale.” A different Republican source said Tuesday that Republicans would spend $21.3 million to Democrats’ $17.6 million on the presidential race through next Monday.

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Other Republicans who work with super PACs, however, do report emerging doubts among major GOP donors and the groups they fund. As the gridlock of the past two years demonstrates, domestic policy in the next presidential term will be determined nearly as much by the partisan makeup of Congress as by the president himself. “How do you hedge your bets?” is the question on the table, says a Republican operative familiar with these conversations. Republican strategists have virtually given up hope of winning the Senate. (Congratulations, Todd Akin!) Thus, “you’ve got to hold and expand the House to stop Obama,” says the operative.

Ad time in competitive presidential states is already limited, but slots are plentiful–and still relatively cheap–in the dozens of states where the Romney and Obama campaigns aren’t doing battle. Republicans are also taking a second look at down-ballot candidates who may be suffering from a lack of pro-GOP advertising in places that the Romney campaign has written off. “There is a developing concern about ‘orphan seats’ in states where Obama is way ahead,” says another Republican who works with super PACs.

Meanwhile, one Republican super PAC is working to expand the presidential campaign battlefield onto ostensibly Democratic turf. The pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future announced a $2.2 million ad buy Wednesday in the Obama-leaning states of Michigan and Wisconsin; the former is Romney’s birth state, and recent polling suggests a tightening race there. Wisconsin is the home of Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, and a recent New York Times/CBS poll found Obama with just a six-point lead in a state Republicans have not carried since 1984. The Obama campaign apparently takes the Wisconsin threat seriously enough to send the president there for a campaign event this weekend. Some commentators may be ready to write Romney’s political obituary. But the Republican super PACs don’t see it that way–at least not yet.