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Originally published September 30, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 30, 2007 at 2:04 AM

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Conservative group thinks it has answer to MoveOn.org

Big-money nonprofit debuted with a $15 million ad campaign backing the Iraq war and hopes to build grass-roots support.

The New York Times

Freedom's Watch, a deep-pocketed conservative group led by two former senior White House officials, made an audacious debut in late August, when it began a $15 million advertising campaign designed to maintain congressional support for President Bush's troop increase in Iraq.

Founded by a dozen wealthy conservatives, the nonprofit is set apart from most advocacy groups by the immense wealth of its core group of benefactors, its intention to far outspend rivals such as the liberal group MoveOn.org and its ambition to pursue a wide-ranging agenda. Its next target: Iran policy.

Freedom's Watch next month will sponsor a private forum of 20 experts on radical Islam that is expected to make the case that Iran poses a direct threat to the security of the United States, according to several benefactors of the group.

Although the group declined to identify the experts, several were invited from the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington research group with close ties to the White House. Some institute scholars have advocated a more confrontational policy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, including keeping military action as an option.

A Freedom's Watch newspaper ad last week called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "a terrorist." The group is considering a national ad campaign focused on Iran, a senior benefactor said, although Matt David, a spokesman for the group, declined to comment on those plans.

"If Hitler's warnings were heeded when he wrote 'Mein Kampf,' he could have been stopped," said Bradley Blakeman, 49, president of Freedom's Watch and a former deputy assistant to Bush. "Ahmadinejad is giving all the same kind of warning signs to us, and the region; he wants the destruction of the United States and the destruction of Israel."

With a forceful message and a roster of wealthy benefactors, Freedom's Watch quickly has emerged from the crowded field of nonprofit advocacy groups as a conservative answer to the nine-year-old MoveOn, which vehemently opposes the Iraq war.

The idea for Freedom's Watch was hatched in March at the winter meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Manalapan, Fla., where Vice President Dick Cheney was the keynote speaker, participants said. The group next week will move into a 10,000-square-foot office in Washington, with plans to employ up to 50 people by early next year.

One benefactor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the group hoped to raise up to $200 million by November 2008. Raising big money "will be easy," the benefactor said, adding that several of the founders each wrote a check for $1 million. Blakeman would not confirm whether any donor gave $1 million, or more, to the organization.

Since the group is organized as a tax-exempt organization, it does not have to reveal donors and it cannot engage in certain types of partisan activities that directly support political candidates.

It denies coordinating its activities with the White House. However, many donors and organizers, including Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary, are well-connected to the administration.

"Ideologically, we are inspired by much of Ronald Reagan's thinking: peace through strength, protect and defend America, and prosperity through free enterprise," Fleischer said.

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Among the group's founders are Sheldon Adelson, chairman and chief executive of Las Vegas Sands, who ranks sixth on the Forbes magazine list of the world's billionaires; Mel Sembler, a shopping-center magnate based in St. Petersburg, Fla., who served as the ambassador to Italy and Australia; John Templeton, a conservative philanthropist from Bryn Mawr, Pa.; and Anthony Gioia, a former ambassador to Malta who heads an investment group based in Buffalo, N.Y. All four are longtime prolific donors who have raised money on behalf of Republican and conservative causes.

For years, the group's founders lamented MoveOn's growing influence, derived in large part from its grass-roots efforts, especially on the debate about the Iraq war. "A bunch of us activists kept watching MoveOn and its attacks on the war, and it just got to be obnoxious," said Sembler, a friend of Cheney. "We decided we needed to do something about this, because the conservative side was not responding."

Sembler, who is on the board of directors of the American Enterprise Institute, said the impetus for Freedom's Watch "came out of AEI" last winter. He said that at an institute event in December 2006, he listened to retired Gen. Jack Keane and Frederick Kagan, an institute scholar, talk about the need for a troop increase in Iraq, a plan adopted by Bush in January.

"I realized it was not only what we needed to do," Sembler said, "but we needed to articulate this message across the country."

He also said he was frustrated that he heard reports at institute events that the increase was working but that the news media was not reflecting the progress.

Said Fleischer: "After the president announced the surge, and even Republicans started getting nervous, there was a palpable fear among several of us that this fall Congress was going to cut off the funding and the Middle East would explode and America would likely get hit."

Over the summer, Fleischer and the other founders recruited a president, choosing Blakeman, who served as a deputy assistant to President Bush in charge of scheduling and appointments. In 2000, Blakeman led the Bush-Cheney campaign's public-relations effort during the 36 days of the deadlocked election. He left the White House in January 2004.

Blakeman and Fleischer said they intended to turn Freedom's Watch into a permanent fixture, waging a "never-ending campaign" on an array of foreign-policy and domestic issues. They also hope to build an active, grass-roots support network.

Like Freedom's Watch, MoveOn had its origins in an attempt by wealthy political donors, including George Soros, to shape the debate in Washington. MoveOn was founded by two Silicon Valley venture capitalists in 1998, shortly after the Starr report was delivered to Congress, detailing accusations of perjury and obstruction of justice against President Clinton.

Freedom's Watch and MoveOn have clashed through ads over Gen. David Petraeus' war-progress report to Congress in September.

In one Freedom's Watch ad, Sgt. John Kriesel, a National Guardsman who lost his legs in a bombing near Fallujah, pleads with Congress and the public not to "surrender" in Iraq. As the screen shows a still photograph of the second hijacked plane bearing down on the burning World Trade Center, Kriesel adds, "They attacked us, and they will again. They won't stop in Iraq."

Several ads suggested Iraq, rather than al-Qaida, was behind the Sept. 11 attacks, even though no evidence of Iraq's involvement has been found.

Freedom's Watch also pounced on MoveOn's full-page "General Betray Us" ad published Sept. 10 in The New York Times. The New York Times also was embroiled in the debate after giving MoveOn a discount for the ad, which the newspaper later acknowledged was a mistake. MoveOn since has agreed to pay the difference.

Blakeman denied the accusation that Freedom's Watch is a White House front group. "I don't need their help," he said of his former White House colleagues. "I don't seek their help. And they don't offer it."

Fleischer said Freedom's Watch was not coordinating with the White House and had an agenda beyond the Bush administration. "On Jan. 21, 2009, what will these critics say when we are still here, doing the same thing?" he said. "We will still be here after George Bush is gone."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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