WASHINGTON (AP) -- Reversing an earlier stand, President Barack Obama is now encouraging donors to give generously to the kind of political fundraising groups he once assailed as a "threat to democracy." He had little choice, his campaign says, if he was to compete with big-money conservative groups that are sure to attack him this fall.
Obama's campaign is urging its top donors to support Priorities USA, a "super PAC" led by two former Obama aides that has struggled to compete with the tens of millions of dollars collected by Republican-backed outside groups. Campaign officials said Tuesday the president had signed off on the decision.
The president is already facing criticism that he is compromising on principle and succumbing to Washington political rules he pledged to change. Yet in a plea to supporters, campaign manager Jim Messina said it would be unfair and unwise for the president's re-election effort to live under one set of rules while the Republican presidential nominee benefits from a new supercharged campaign finance landscape.
"We decided to do this because we can't afford for the work you're doing in your communities, and the grassroots donations you give to support it, to be destroyed by hundreds of millions of dollars in negative ads," Messina said.
The Supreme Court opened the door to the "super" political action committees, stripping away some limits on campaign contributions in its 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, a ruling that Obama has spoken against. The new super PACs can't coordinate directly with candidates or their campaigns, but they have played a major role in the Republican primary contests by raising millions of dollars for negative advertising in early contests in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.
Messina said senior campaign officials, along with some White House officials and members of Obama's Cabinet, would attend and speak at fundraising events for Priorities USA but would not directly ask for money. He said Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama would not be part of the effort and would remain focused on Obama's own re-election campaign.
Republicans jeered Obama's decision, and they weren't alone. Supporters of more openness in government said the president had capitulated on his past calls to rein in the role of money in politics.
Former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a longtime advocate for campaign finance limits, said the decision to support the super PAC would "gut a winning, progressive strategy. When Democrats play by Republican rules, people see our party as weak, and a false alternative to the power of rich individual and corporate interests that are increasingly dominating our government."
Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, said the notion that White House officials "are not soliciting money is laughable."
Republicans criticized the Obama campaign's embrace of the outside groups, calling it a hypocritical shift by Obama after he criticized the influence of secret, special-interest money. Obama has previously referred to the money as a "threat to our democracy."
"Just another broken promise," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said of Obama's decision.
Not facing any primary opposition, Obama's campaign has socked away tens of millions of dollars. But his team took notice as recent fundraising reports revealed a large disparity with Republican super PACs. American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, two groups tied to Republican strategist Karl Rove, raised $51 million last year, while major Democratic groups, including Priorities USA Action, collected $19 million.
Obama's campaign and its supporters at Priorities USA and the Democratic National Committee actually have out-spent their Republican counterparts by nearly two to one, records show. Financial reports as of late 2011 show Obama's re-election effort garnered nearly $253 million in contributions and had $95.9 million still on hand.
But the fundraising gap may be starting to narrow. While Obama-supporting groups have largely out-raised Republicans, including Mitt Romney's campaign, GOP-leaning groups such as Restore Our Future, as well as the Republican National Committee, have brought the GOP total to $226 million. That includes the $51 million raised from both American Crossroads and its non-profit arm, Crossroads GPS.
Some other major Republican donors have yet to get behind Romney fully. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his family, for instance, have pledged $11 million to help Newt Gingrich, although operatives say he'll likely support Romney as the best chance to beat Obama in the fall. That, combined with yet-to-be-spent cash from other major fundraisers, could tip the money balance in Romney's favor.
Democrats have raised concerns about the potential impact of the super PACs on the general election. Obama campaign senior strategist David Axelrod said last month that the "prospect of hundreds of millions of dollars of negative ads raining down on us is not a prospect that I relish." But he said then that Obama was "thoroughly known to the American people" and would be less vulnerable to such ads.
Underscoring their concerns, the first ad aired by the Obama campaign defended the president's record on energy and ethics. It came in response to a hard-hitting ad aired by Americans for Prosperity, a group connected to billionaires Charles and David Koch, that accused the president of using taxpayer money to benefit political donors at bankrupt energy company Solyndra.
In a weekend interview, Obama bemoaned the influence of big money in presidential campaigns and said he expected many of the 2012 campaign ads funded by super PACs to be negative. But he also said the Supreme Court's decision had made outside money an unavoidable part of the political process.
"It is very hard to be able to get your message out without having some resources," Obama told NBC News.
The super PACs have played a major role in the Republican primaries so far this year. Groups working for or against presidential candidates have spent roughly $25 million on TV ads -- about half the nearly $53 million spent on advertising in all to influence voters in the early weeks of the race.
Though super PACs can't coordinate directly with campaigns, many that are active this election season are staffed by longtime supporters or former aides of the candidates.
In a separate campaign-finance matter, Obama's campaign said it was returning about $200,000 in contributions collected by family members of a Mexican casino owner who fled the U.S. after facing drug and fraud charges.
Obama's campaign said it had decided to return the donations arranged by Chicago brothers Carlos Cardona and Alberto Rojas Cardona, who had begun raising money for the campaign and the Democratic National Committee last year.
The New York Times reported late Monday that the fundraisers are the brothers of casino owner Juan Jose Rojas Cardona, who skipped bail in Iowa in 1994 and has since been linked to violence and corruption in Mexico.
The campaign said it refunded the money raised by family members after the newspaper asked about the brothers' fundraising role. Obama campaign officials said they were identifying donations bundled by other people connected to Cardona, expected to be about $100,000, and would return those funds as well.
"On the basis of the questions that have been raised, we will return the contributions from these individuals and from any other donors they brought to the campaign," said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.
The newspaper reported that Gordon Fischer, a lawyer and the former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, had sought a pardon for Juan Jose Rojas Cardona from Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, but none was granted.