By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A conservative group backing Republican Mitt Romney on Thursday rejected a planned $10 million ad campaign that would have revived the link between President Barack Obama and his controversial former pastor Jeremiah Wright.
A divisive figure from the 2008 presidential election, Wright was briefly at the center of a fire storm again when an independent "Super PAC" group was reported to be considering a series of ads reminding voters of Obama's association with him.
The plan from a group of Republican strategists was presented to a Super PAC bankrolled by Joe Ricketts, the founder of the brokerage firm TD Ameritrade, patriarch of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team and an increasingly active force in conservative politics.
After The New York Times reported on the plan in its Thursday editions, the group released a statement saying it reflected an approach to politics that Ricketts rejected.
"It was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take," said the statement by Brian Baker, president of Ricketts's Ending Spending Action Fund.
Former spiritual adviser Wright's racially charged Chicago sermons became an issue in the 2008 campaign and forced Obama to deliver a major speech on race relations.
Before the idea was quashed, reports of ads featuring Wright ignited a heated exchange between the Obama and Romney camps that offered a glimpse of how rough and personal the White House race could become.
Romney's camp said it would "repudiate" any campaign efforts at character assassination but accused Obama, who launched a sharp ad earlier this week criticizing Romney's work as a venture capitalist, of initiating personal attacks.
"Unlike the Obama campaign, Governor Romney is running a campaign based on jobs and the economy and we encourage everyone else to do the same," said Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades.
"It's clear President Obama's team is running a campaign of character assassination," Rhoades said. "We repudiate any efforts on our side to do so," he said in a statement.
Obama's camp said Romney was too reluctant to confront the most conservative wing of his party, and the plan showed how far to the right the party had moved since Republican presidential candidate John McCain rejected similar tactics in 2008.
"Once again, Governor Romney has fallen short of the standard that John McCain set, reacting tepidly in a moment that required moral leadership in standing up to the very extreme wing of his own party," said Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager.
"The blueprint for a hate-filled, divisive campaign of character assassination speaks for itself," he said in a statement.
The Times report said the proposal was overseen by Republican ad man Fred Davis and his firm Strategic Perception. It called for an ad campaign that would aggressively remind voters of Obama's relationship with Wright.
The campaign was to be timed to coincide with the Democratic National Convention in September and would require hiring an "extremely literate conservative African-American" to counter potential charges of race-baiting from Obama's supporters.
McCain rejected using images of Wright's speeches during the 2008 campaign, and the proposal lamented that decision. "If the nation had seen that ad, they'd never have elected Barack Obama," it said.
Romney's campaign is prohibited by law from coordinating with Super PACs like the one formed by Ricketts. It is one of the independent groups that have flourished after the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision to allow unlimited donations to political action committees.
Ricketts' son, Pete, is a member of the Republican national Committee from Nebraska and his daughter, Laura, is a bundler for Obama's campaign and a co-owner of the Cubs.
(Additional reporting by Alina Selyukh; editing by Todd Eastham)