A Willie Horton Hit on Obama?

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Update Appended: April 22, 2008

An old right-wing attack dog has returned with a new target: Barack Obama.

Starting Tuesday, a group of conservative activists led by Floyd Brown, author of the famous Willie Horton ad used so effectively against Michael Dukakis in 1988, will begin a campaign to tar Obama as weak on crime and terrorism, a strategy that aims to upend Obama's relatively strong reputation among Republican voters.

"The campaign by Hillary Clinton has not been able to raise Obama's negatives," said Brown on Monday. "It is absolutely critical that Obama's negatives go up with Republicans."

Brown says the initial effort, a 60-second spot called "Victims" will be aired later this month in North Carolina and e-mailed to between 3 and 7 million conservatives this week, with a plea for more funding to further spread the message. "All of the efforts I have ever done in my life have been significantly funded," Brown claimed, though he declined to describe the size of the purchase. "This is going to be the most Internet-intensive effort for an ad debut ever."

The new ad recounts the deaths of three Chicago residents in 2001 at the hands of criminal gangs. "That same year, a Chicago state senator named Barack Obama voted against expanding the death penalty for gang-related murders," an ominous female narrator intones. "So the question is, can a man so weak in the war on gangs be trusted in the war on terror?"

Brown is funding the initial ad campaign through a political action committee called the National Campaign Fund, which had $14,027 in the bank at the end of March. Brown said he had established several other front groups to fund a long-range effort to erode Obama's support, including a second PAC, called The Legacy Committee, a 527 organization called Citizens for a Safe and Prosperous America and a so-called "social welfare" 501(c)4 nonprofit called the Policy Issues Institute.

Later this week, Brown said he plans to debut a second ad, focusing on Democratic support for giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, which he says will also be aired in North Carolina. The second ad will be paid for by Citizens for a Safe and Prosperous America, the 527 group, which can accept donations of any amount. "This is a long march to November," Brown said. "Right now it's beginning a process that gives us the information to succeed in August and September."

By airing the ads in North Carolina, the site of an upcoming Democratic primary, Brown appears to be playing for national media attention. The initial spot also consciously mimics the themes from one of the most famous, and controversial, attack ads in modern political history, the Willie Horton ad. That spot, which was also funded outside a campaign, blamed Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee, for the weekend furlough that allowed a convicted felon to commit another rape. At the time, domestic crime was a major national issue, though it has not registered as a significant concern in public opinion polls during this election cycle.

Brown's new ad focuses on a 2001 vote by Obama in the Illinois Senate to oppose a bill that would have expanded the use of the death penalty if the perpetrator of a crime belonged to a gang. The links between Obama's vote on that issue and the deaths of three Chicago resident's are indirect and tenuous, as is the further connection the ad draws between the issue of Obama's position on the death penalty and the issue of international terrorism. (The ad can be viewed here.)

Obama has written that he supports the death penalty for some crimes that are "so heinous" and "so beyond the pale." But in Illinois he worked to put in place more safeguards to prevent wrongful convictions, including a law that required police to tape interrogations and confessions. The Obama campaign did not offer any immediate comment on Brown's ad. (Update: The Obama campaign later responded to the ad, saying "Floyd Brown and the garbage he puts on TV represent everything the American people hate about politics..." Read the full Obama statement here.) John McCain supports continued use of the death penalty, as does Hillary Clinton, though she has also called for more procedural safeguards to improve legal representation for death row inmates.

The new campaign could also have an impact on the ongoing Democratic nomination battle. Clinton has long maintained that she is better equipped to handle the expected onslaught of attacks from Republican allies. "I've been in this arena for a long time. I have a lot of baggage, and everybody has rummaged through it for years," she said at a debate last week. "I will be able to withstand whatever the Republicans send our way."

The original version of this story has been updated with parts of a statement from the Obama campaign.