A new Republican Party television ad featuring a scantily clad white woman winking and inviting a black candidate to "call me" is drawing charges of race-baiting, with critics saying it contradicts a landmark GOP statement last year that the party was wrong in past decades to use racial appeals to win support from white voters.
Critics said the ad, which is funded by the Republican National Committee and has aired since Friday, plays on fears of interracial relationships to scare some white voters in rural Tennessee to oppose Democratic Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr. Ford is locked in a tight race, hoping to become the first African American senator since Reconstruction to represent a state in the former Confederacy.
"It is a powerful innuendo that plays to pre-existing prejudices about African American men and white women," said Hilary Shelton, head of the Washington office of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the country's oldest civil rights organization.
A former Republican senator, William S. Cohen of Maine, was more blunt. Cohen, who was also Defense secretary under President Clinton, said on CNN that the ad was "a very serious appeal to a racist sentiment."
The 30-second ad features fictional characters satirizing Ford.
A black woman notes that Ford "looks good" and asks, "Isn't that enough?" Others suggest Ford backs privacy for terrorists, accepts money from the pornography industry, wants to raise taxes and backs letting Canada deal with the North Korea nuclear threat.
The character who has raised complaints is a blond woman who speaks in a hushed, suggestive tone and says that she met Ford at "the Playboy party."
At the end of the ad, she reappears and says: "Harold, call me." She winks and holds her hand up as if holding a phone.
Shelton said the ad contradicted the spirit of remarks delivered at last year's NAACP convention by the Republican National Committee chairman, Ken Mehlman, in which he decried those in his party who had tried to "benefit politically from racial polarization." He was referring to the party's so-called Southern strategy of energizing white voters with race-baiting messages about integration and civil rights.
"I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong," Mehlman said in the July 2005 address, in which he also said the party would now use positive messages to draw African Americans to the GOP.
Ford's Republican opponent, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, has asked Tennessee television stations not to run the spot, calling it "over the top." But the ad has continued to run -- and on Monday the Republican National Committee was unapologetic.
"I won't even entertain the premise" that the ad is racially offensive, said Danny Diaz, a Republican Party spokesman. He said the allegation was "not fair and not serious and not accurate."
Diaz said the ad was an "independent expenditure" produced by an arm of the Republican National Committee that is legally prohibited from coordinating with Mehlman. Because of this, Diaz said, Mehlman did not see or approve the ad before its release.
Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said Monday that she was shocked by the ad. Brazile, an African American who has forged a friendship with Mehlman and White House strategist Karl Rove, said she intended to call Mehlman to request that the Republican National Committee discontinue the ad.
"With this ad, Mehlman's apology rings hollow," she said, referring to the 2005 speech.
John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist who published a book this year on attack ads, "In Defense of Negativity," said he had watched the anti-Ford spot repeatedly in recent days.
"I just couldn't believe what I was seeing," he said. "I don't see how you can think it's not playing a racial card. It's making references to interracial sex. It's an ad that is in some sense breaking new lows."
For Mehlman, such criticism is unusual. He has won accolades from African American leaders for aggressive outreach efforts, speaking to more than 50 black organizations since becoming chairman in 2005.
His remarks on the Southern strategy were viewed as a milestone in the GOP effort to diversify the party base by attracting blacks with messages of economic empowerment and appeals to faith.
The party is fielding black candidates in three major races this year in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Ford, though, has proved a challenge for the GOP. He has run as a hawkish Democrat, opposed to amnesty for illegal immigrants and a supporter of banning gay marriage. His race with Corker is considered to be neck-and-neck.
A new response ad by Ford that began airing Monday features the candidate, talking to the camera, accusing Corker of unleashing attacks rather than talking issues.
"If I had a dog," Ford says, "he'd probably kick him too."