While Republican Mike Huckabee wishes voters Merry Christmas in a television ad, a group organized by his supporters makes automated phone calls slipping the knife into his opponents.

John Edwards, lagging behind his Democratic rivals in cash, gets more than a million dollars in help from labor unions running parallel campaigns.

And Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is locked in a tight race in Iowa, has well-organized and highly strategic assistance from labor backers and EMILY’s List, the pro-abortion rights fundraising group that aims to help female candidates.

Presidential candidates are benefiting — and sometimes being criticized — by independent groups that are only now beginning to make their presence known in the early contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire. These groups can be more targeted, more negative and can coordinate their activities in ways that candidate campaigns cannot.

At the same time, the contenders themselves are operating on parallel tracks. Republican candidates in particular are stuffing mailboxes with negative messages about their rivals while airing cheery holiday greetings on television.

Mitt Romney has been especially prolific with negative mail. One piece portrays Fred Thompson as having a “do nothing record” on immigration and characterizes his other rivals — John McCain, Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani — as too lenient toward illegal immigrants.

In one brochure mailed in Iowa, Thompson criticizes the economic policies of Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor with this: “Mike Huckabee talks like a Republican but taxes like a Democrat.” Clinton and Barack Obama have exchanged mail over their health care plans.

The mixed messages have their purposes. Negative television can damage both the source and the target. But negative mailings can be aimed at supporters and at voters with a specific gripe.

“Broadcast messages are seen by a broader audience,” said Stephen D. Ansolabehere, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert on political advertising. “Your attack direct mail is going to be sent to the people you want it to be sent to. It’s not going to go to areas you don’t want to alienate.”

Besides negative ads and mailings, campaigns and their supporters can spread more scurrilous attacks through the Internet, using blogs, e-mails and Web gossip sites such as the Drudge Report.

Outside groups often have been more likely to go on the air with negative advertising. But for the most part, they too have been targeted with their attacks, if they attack at all.

The Club for Growth, which advocates fiscal conservatism, appears to be an exception for now, running television ads against Huckabee. A conservative political action committee called RightMarch.com has spent about $330,000 in mailings and phone calls against Clinton.

The group helping Huckabee, Common Sense Issues, is conducting automated interactive phone calls in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida that provide a positive message about Huckabee or information that is critical of his opponents. It also is organizing caucus-goers for Huckabee, a significant leg up for a cash-strapped candidate who has only recently seen his campaign catch fire.

EMILY’s List has spent $486,000 to identify about 20,000 Clinton-leaning women in Iowa who voted in 2006 but did not participate in the presidential caucus in 2004. Maren Hesla, who heads the group’s independent expenditures, said her staff is using automated and personal phone calls, direct mail, Google ads and the Web to educate women about the caucus process.

EMILY’s List is coordinating with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, two unions that have endorsed Clinton and are paying for ads on radio and television supporting Clinton.

AFSCME also just spent $34,000 on a direct mail piece in Iowa dismissing Obama’s health plan as “another Band-Aid solution.” The mail piece quotes Edwards, not Clinton, criticizing Obama’s plan. The Edwards camp complained the brochure was misleading.

Altogether, the three pro-Clinton groups have spent more than $2 million to help her in the past month.

“We all talk regularly,” Hesla said. “The biggest issue was making sure that we are hitting different audiences.”

Edwards is getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising help from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and from Service Employees International Union locals who have endorsed his campaign. The Carpenters created Working for Working Americans, which is running $482,250 in ads in Iowa through the Jan. 3 caucus. The SEIU locals banded together in the Alliance for a New America, which is running $590,000 in radio ads.

Obama, in a fundraising pitch Thursday, complained about the ads, calls and mailings from the outside groups. “Some of it is negative and even deceptive, and a lot of it is paid for by huge, unregulated contributions from special interests,” he wrote.

The organizations supporting Huckabee, Clinton and Edwards are prime examples of the different types of groups that are seeking to influence elections.

• AFSCME, AFT and EMILY’s List, the groups supporting Clinton, are using their political action committees, which are financed with regulated and limited contributions and can directly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate.

• The Carpenters and the SEIU locals backing Edwards have set up nonprofit groups called “527” organizations that can raise unlimited amounts of money but can only express support for Edwards through “issue ads.” They cannot urge anyone to vote for Edwards, but they can encourage them to call Edwards in support of a particular issue. In 2004, they would not have ben able to air ads within 30 days of an election, but the Supreme Court struck down that prohibition.

• Common Sense Issues, the group backing Huckabee, is organized as a 501(c)4 organization that can receive unlimited contributions from individual donors and advocate for or against a candidate provided that more than half of its activity is nonpolitical. It is one of the newest breeds of politically active groups.

None can coordinate with the candidates, though several have strong ties to the candidates they support.

Former President Clinton in October sent a four-page fundraising letter on behalf of the EMILY’s List Women Vote project that is financing the pro-Clinton effort in Iowa.

Former Edwards’ advisers Nick Baldick and Jeff Link have been advising the labor-backed groups that are helping him with issue ads.

And the president of Common Sense Issues is Harold “Zeke” Swift, a Huckabee backer from Cincinnati. The group’s executive director, Patrick Davis, said he also discussed the state of the presidential race with Republican strategist Ed Rollins last month, weeks before Rollins became Huckabee’s national campaign chairman.

Huckabee has publicly urged Common Sense Issues to halt its calls. And Edwards in Portsmouth, N.H., on Wednesday, complained that he could not tell the groups supporting him to stop.

“The way the law exists today is you have no control,” Edwards said. “You’re not allowed by law to have contact or to coordinate with 527s. So can you discourage it? Yes, and I do.”

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