Washington (CNN) – The first ad by a newly formed independent group led by former top White House aides targets Mitt Romney and highlights the Republican stance on Medicare.
Bill Burton, a senior strategist for Priorities USA Action, confirms to CNN that their television commercial will run in heavy rotation in markets around South Carolina Friday and Saturday. Word of the ad was first reported by the New York Times.
The location and time of the ad buy is no surprise. Saturday Romney makes his first campaign stop this cycle in South Carolina, which holds the first southern primary on the road to the White House. The former Massachusetts governor has all but declared his candidacy in what will be his second bid for the Republican presidential nomination. At this early stage in the race, Romney is considered a front-runner, due to polling and to his strong campaign organization and fundraising.
The ad also shines a spotlight on another GOP presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and on Medicare, which Democrats think may be a winning issue for their party.
"Newt Gingrich says the Republican plan that would essentially end Medicare is too 'radical'. Governor Haley (of South Carolina) thinks the plan is courageous, and Gingrich shouldn't be cutting conservatives off at the knees," says the narrator in the spot. "Mitt Romney says he's "on the same page" as Paul Ryan, who wrote the plan to essentially end Medicare. But with Mitt Romney, you have to wonder, which page is he on today?"
Gingrich sparked a firestorm Sunday on "Meet the Press," when talking about House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's Medicare proposal, he said "I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering. I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate."
A number of top conservatives responded with a chorus of criticism. Since then Gingrich has apologized to the Republican congressman from Wisconsin and conducted interviews with conservative commentators in what appears to be an attempt of damage control.
The House GOP 2012 budget, authored by Ryan, passed the chamber last month without a single Democratic vote and included a proposal to overhaul Medicare. Under the plan, the government would no longer directly pay medical costs for those 55 and older, but instead would offer subsidies for seniors to use to get private health insurance coverage.
A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll indicated that 49 percent of Americans prefer President Obama's approach on Medicare, with four in ten favoring the GOP proposals on Medicare.
In apologizing, Gingrich also warned Democrats not to use his controversial comments from Sunday's "Meet the Press" in any commercials.
"Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood because I have said publicly those words were inaccurate and unfortunate," Gingrich said Tuesday night in an interview on the Fox News Channel.
Thursday morning the Democratic National Committee went up with a web video which showcases both Gingrich's Sunday comments and the ensuing pushback against what he said, to also highlight the GOP stance on Medicare.
The Republican proposal on reforming Medicare has become a major issue in a special congressional election next week to fill a vacant House seat in New York State. And Democrats think the issue could help them in next year's elections.
By asking "which page is he on today," the ad also highlights what could once again be an issue for Romney. In his bid for the 2008 GOP nomination, Romney was accused by fellow Republicans of flip-flopping on the issues.
Friday morning Romney aides quickly responded to the commercial:
"President Obama's first campaign ad is an attack ad. President Obama and his team are desperate to change the subject to anything other than jobs and the millions of Americans out of work. With 9.6 percent unemployment in South Carolina, voters are looking for a jobs plan not a smear campaign," said Andrea Saul, spokesperson for the Romney for President Exploratory Committee.
And the commercial also references criticism of Gingrich by Nikki Haley, who last November was elected South Carolina governor. Haley is popular among conservatives and is considered one of the rising stars in the GOP. Her critical comments towards Gingrich were first reported earlier this week by CNN Political Reporter Peter Hamby.
The release of the ad comes just three weeks after the formation of Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action, which aim to raise a combined $100 million to defend President Barack Obama from what will most likely be a flood of attack ads from similar independent groups on the Republican side.
The two top strategists for the two groups have deep ties to the administration. Burton was a deputy White House press secretary and before that national press secretary for Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Sean Sweeney was a senior adviser to former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Paul Begala, a top political adviser in the Clinton White House, will also have a senior advisor role for Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action.
Priorities USA is being organized as a 501(c)(4) group, which means it does not have to disclose the names of its donors.
The two groups are being set up in a similar fashion to American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, which were two of the most visible independent groups that formed last year to raise and spend large sums of money on behalf of Republican candidates and causes in the 2010 midterm elections.
On the campaign trail last autumn, the president slammed the Republican strategy of using unlimited and sometimes secret contributions. The White House says that the two new groups are totally independent of the administration and of Obama's re-election campaign.
Follow Paul Steinhauser on Twitter: @PsteinhauserCNN