-By Fredreka Schouten

December 19, 2011- Independent groups supporting Republican presidential candidates have sprung to life, funding a flurry of new commercials in recent days to influence the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and other early primary contests.

Restore Our Future, a conservative "super" PAC promoting Mitt Romney, is running $300,000 worth of ads in Florida that question the conservative credentials of GOP front-runner Newt Gingrich. The group also is spending $3.1 million in Iowa.

The Red White and Blue Fund, a super PAC backing former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum's presidential bid, recently launched a $200,000 Iowa advertising campaign.

Overall, candidate-specific super PACs have reported spending more than $6.8 million this year. Nearly $2.7 million of that was spent in the past week, Federal Election Commission records show.

"Now that we are entering into the final weeks before the first primaries, spending will spike," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money. "These PACs are an important asset to candidates. They reinforce the campaign's message, but they also can run attacks ads that raise doubts about the competition while allowing the candidates to keep their hands clean."

Campaign-finance watchdog groups are racing to rein in the activity of these new political action committees, which emerged last year after court rulings eased restrictions on corporate political spending.

The PACs can accept unlimited amounts of money from corporations and unions but are barred from coordinating their activity with candidates. By law, candidates cannot accept any money directly from corporate or union treasuries and no more than $2,500 from an individual for a primary or general election.

Fred Wertheimer, president of the watchdog group Democracy 21, argues the new PACs represent shadowy arms of presidential campaigns because they often are run and funded by candidates' close allies.

"These are the most dangerous vehicles for corruption in American politics today," he said.



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