Hitler in Virginia
The Hitler Ad
The controversy Howell's Timbrook spot aroused paled in comparison to the outrage sparked by what is now commonly known in Virginia as "the Hitler ad." This Howell-produced spot featured an elderly man, Stanley Rosenbluth, staring into the camera and exclaiming, "Tim Kaine voluntarily represented the man who murdered my son." In a sixty-second version (timed to debut on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur), Rosenbluth uttered the most memorable statement of the governor's race thus far: "Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn't qualify for the death penalty. This was the worst mass murderer in modern times."
Rosenbluth's Hitler reference may have been bracing, but it was not a non sequitur. During a lengthy question-and-answer session with reporters in September, Kaine was asked if he would support execution for Hitler, Stalin or Idi Amin. He replied, "If God gives life, God should take it away." Later in that session, Kaine stated that he would enforce the death penalty despite his personal opposition to it, a fact Howell's commercial omitted.
Howell, of course, understood that raising the death penalty was a calculated risk. While most Virginians are in favor of it, according to a Hotline poll conducted this month, only 2 percent say it is the issue the next governor should prioritize, compared to 30 percent who cite education. But Howell has a long history of working for politicians--Chambliss, Bush and now Kilgore--who have not gotten ahead through high-minded policy debates. Howell's attempt to transform the governor's race into a character contest was practically instinctual. Just as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth undermined public trust in John Kerry by spotlighting his supposed antiwar activities during Vietnam, Howell hopes his crime-victims-for-the-death-penalty spots cast Kaine as, in Howell's words, "a Harvard-educated liberal activist" who has "tried to have it both ways on a lot of issues." In short, Kaine is the latest version of the flip-flopper from Massachusetts.
But Howell's invocation of Hitler ignited an unexpected political firestorm. The Anti-Defamation League and a parade of Virginia-based rabbis condemned the ad for "trivializ[ing] the Holocaust," while virtually every major newspaper in Virginia ran editorials denouncing it. Among them was the pro-death penalty Daily Press of Newport-News, which wrote, "In the search for votes, Kilgore goes looking in the gutter." Sensing an opportunity, the Kaine campaign ran an ad promoting the criticism from an array of local newspapers.
Soon, questions about Rosenbluth's credibility filtered through Virginia political circles. As it happens, Rosenbluth is a professional death penalty advocate and longtime Republican donor who was promoted this year for the National Crime Victims Rights Week award by Kilgore and his campaign co-chair, Senator George Allen. Rosenbluth founded Virginians United Against Crime after a cocaine dealer murdered his son Richard and daughter-in-law Becky for failing to pay him. Needless to say, this sordid background did not appear in Howell's ad. According to a December 1993 report in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Richard Rosenbluth "had apparently become a 'hard-core' crack user who was so addicted to the drug, 'little else mattered to him at this point.'"
In a conference call with reporters after the Kilgore ad aired, Kaine explained that while his law firm was appointed by a judge to represent Richard Rosenbluth's killer, his own involvement in the case was limited to providing forty minutes of advice to the lawyer who argued it. Kaine's campaign swiftly placed an ad on the air to deflect Howell's charges. In it, Kaine described his personal opposition to the death penalty as a reflection of his Catholic faith, while pledging to uphold death penalty sentencing. A September Washington Post poll that asked voters whether they believed Kaine would enforce the death penalty despite his personal opposition found 63 percent of respondents did.
A week after Howell's attack ads began, polls by Survey USA poll and Hotline showed Kaine ahead by two points. Though polls by Rasmussen and Mason-Dixon had Kilgore in front by two percentage points, his meager lead reflected the failure of Howell's ad blitz to restore his previously commanding position in the race. Hoping to stop a possible backlash, the Kilgore campaign yanked Howell's death penalty spots and replaced them with more conventionally styled ads criticizing Kaine's position on suburban transportation congestion. Kaine's death penalty ads, meanwhile, are still airing throughout Virginia.
Howell is puzzled by the indignation his death penalty strategy inspired. "You can't watch the spots and say I didn't do it in a tasteful way," he said. "I actually try to be careful on those issues." (During the controversy over Howell's "Safer, Stronger" ad in 2004, Bush's then-campaign adviser, Karen Hughes, defended it as "very tasteful.") "I try to be very credible and very factual. I try to be right in the fact," Howell added. "I can't stand putting something on television, whether I'm talking about taxes or the death penalty--it's important to be accurate. It's important to me to always be accurate." As for his client, Howell concedes, "We're not in the best environment to be running a campaign."
The media man has helped engineer more than his share of come-from-behind victories against formidable opponents, but the atmosphere is growing perilous. On election day, November 8, Kilgore may suffer collateral damage from indictments of senior White House officials--including Howell's former partner, Karl Rove. But even before national events descended on the Virginia gubernatorial race, the tried-and-true media tactics in the Republican arsenal proved to be duds. For decades the Republicans have perfected their negative game plan, but this particular race may begin to demonstrate its exhaustion.