Bin Laden’s Face Pops Up in Ads

Posted October 5, 2004 at 6:41pm

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has become a political centerpiece in several key Senate and House races around the country, punctuating pledges by Senate Democrats that they will not repeat the mistakes of 2002, when Republicans attacked them for their approach to the war on terror.

As the parties angle for an advantage on the crucial question of how to keep America safe from attack, Senate candidates in Colorado and Washington, as well as a Republican House Member in Kansas already have used images of bin Laden in their advertising.

In the 2002 election cycle, Republicans used Democratic opposition to the creation of a Homeland Security department as a campaign bludgeon, most notably in the Georgia Senate race.

“One thing we learned from 2002 is we are not going to sit there and take it anymore,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Brad Woodhouse. “Whether it’s on the issues of national security and terrorism or the economy we are going to fight fire with fire.”

The debate over which party can claim the homeland security mantle is being put to the test in Colorado, where state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) unveiled an ad Tuesday that takes his Republican opponent to task for allegedly not supporting the death penalty for terrorists.

The ad opens with a close-up of the al Qaeda leader as a narrator says: “Osama bin Laden. Should he face the death penalty for murdering 3,000 Americans?”

Flash to a picture of brewing magnate Pete Coors, Salazar’s Republican opponent, dressed in a tuxedo.

“Pete Coors says ‘no.’ Unbelievable,” says the narrator.

Mike Stratton, campaign chairman for Salazar, says the ad is “appropriate” and follows a period in which Coors has distorted Salazar’s views on homeland security.

“Coors has been up with heavy points suggesting that the attorney general is soft on terrorism,” added Stratton. “It is a desperate move because he is so far behind in the polls.”

A spokeswoman for the Coors campaign termed Salazar’s decision to make bin Laden an issue in the race an “act of desperation.”

“This is absolutely going to backfire,” predicted Cinamon Watson. “At some point you cross a line and go over the top. Salazar has reached that point.”

Last cycle, Democrats watched aghast as then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) ran ads picturing Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) — a triple amputee from the Vietnam War — next to images of bin Laden and then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The ads pointed out that Cleland, along with other Senate Democrats‚ was obstructing the establishment of the Homeland Security Department. It implicitly questioned Cleland’s support for the war on terror.

Democrats were enraged, arguing that the ads amounted to labeling Cleland unpatriotic. Georgia voters had a different reaction, delivering Chambliss an unexpected 53 percent to 46 percent victory.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Communications Director Dan Allen dismissed recent Democratic attempts to turn the issue against the GOP.

“It was the Democrats holding up the homeland security bill in 2002, and they lost the majority for it,” he said. “Democrats trying to attack on this issue shows how desperate they are.”

Carl Forti, communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee, largely agreed.

“Any time you have Democrats voting against funding the Homeland Security Department or the $87 billion supplemental [for Iraq] it is a political issue,” he said.

Other Republican strategists were less willing to predict the impact of injecting bin Laden into contested races.

“It is a huge risk,” said one prominent Republican consultant. “It can be done if you don’t overdo it, but some people would say just doing it is overdoing it.”

The consultant added that he would caution any of his clients from using images or references to bin Laden in their advertising during the final month of the campaign.

In at least two races, however, Republicans have launched commercials using bin Laden to paint their opponents as out of step.

Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.) began running an ad last week that begins with footage of the rubble at the World Trade Center and continues with taped comments made by Washington Sen. Patty Murray (D) in late 2002 that bin Laden had “made [Afghanis’] lives better.”

“Winning the war on terror means fighting terrorists, not excusing them,” says Nethercutt at the ad’s conclusion.

Murray immediately held a joint press conference with Cleland to condemn the ad, and explained that her comment was taken out of context from a session in which she was seeking to explain how the Unites States is viewed by the world community.

Murray also went up with a response spot that asked “what kind of politician would use Osama bin Laden and images of 9/11 to get elected.”

In Kansas’ 2nd district, Rep. Jim Ryun (R) aired an ad attacking his opponent, businesswoman Nancy Boyda (D), for her role in organizing anti-war rallies that featured images of bin Laden.

Boyda called for Ryun to remove the ad and apologize. He did neither.

One Democratic House leadership aide cautioned that while using bin Laden worked for Chambliss, times have changed in the past two years. The source said the issue is no longer a slam dunk for Republicans.

“The political landscape has moved a long way from where it was,” said the source. “Coming out strong for punishing terrorists is in and of itself an inoculator against claims that Democrats are weak on terror.”