The billionaire said to be weighing a proposal to resurrect incendiary comments by President Barack Obama's former pastor shelved the idea Thursday after Obama and Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney denounced the tactic.
An aide to Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade , said the proposal to draw the Rev. Jeremiah Wright into the presidential campaign — and the issue of race, by extension — went too far.
The New York Times reported Thursday that Ricketts' Ending Spending Action Fund, a conservative super PAC, was considering a proposal for a $10 million TV ad campaign highlighting Wright's sermons.
The blueprint, titled "The Defeat of Barack Hussein Obama: the Ricketts Plan to End His Spending For Good," was devised by a group of Republican strategists, one of whom confirmed its contents for The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss private working sessions.
Brian Baker, president of the super PAC, said Ricketts was not the author of the 54-page plan. Baker blamed consultants.
"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," Baker said in a statement.
Romney had urged the independent group, which favors his candidacy, to abandon the Wright strategy and to focus instead on his bedrock issue, the economy.
"I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they've described," Romney told the conservative website Townhall.com. "I would like to see this campaign focus on the economy, on getting people back to work, on seeing rising incomes and growing prosperity — particularly for those in the middle class of America."
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina criticized the plan as a "campaign of character assassination" and accused Romney "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 against Obama.
Messina commented before Romney's interview with Townhall.com, and issued no comment after Romney urged Ricketts' group to abandon the effort.
McCain made clear four years ago that he wanted to challenge Obama on his record, not on the words or deeds of those around him, and forbade adviser Fred Davis from incorporating Wright into their advertising plans.
But Davis, a colorful Hollywood consultant, clearly wanted another chance to go 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. "And why the influence of that misguided mentor and our president's formative years among left-wing intellectuals has brought our country to its knees."
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 became a problem for Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign when videos of the pastor's sermons surfaced. 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."
Wright, who preached at the Chicago church Obama once attended, became such a distraction for Obama that he ended up delivering a major speech on race relations to try to quell the controversy. He also severed his ties to Wright.
For his part, Arizona Sen. McCain said he had no regrets over his handling of 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 told reporters Thursday 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."
Ricketts is the founder of Nebraska-based TD Ameritrade Securities and owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. He has been active in conservative politics for years, most recently in Republican Deb Fischer's upset win this week in the Republican Senate primary in Nebraska.