Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo on Monday unveiled a television ad depicting a hooded terrorist detonating a bomb inside a shopping mall, a message the Colorado congressman said he hoped would vault illegal immigration to its rightful place at the center of the campaign.
Critics accused Tancredo of fear-mongering.
The 30-second spot, which began airing on cable television in Iowa, casts Tancredo as the only candidate brave enough to buck political convention and discuss the true threat of immigration -- terrorists crossing into the U.S.
It ends with the image of a backpack abandoned in a crowded mall, a black screen and the sound of a loud explosion. An on-screen message declares: "Tancredo . . . before it's too late."
Tancredo, who has lagged in a large primary field, introduced the ad and an accompanying radio spot in Des Moines. Iowa is to hold its first-in-the-nation caucuses Jan. 3.
"The consequences of uncontrolled immigration are far more serious than our leaders want us to believe," the candidate said in a prepared statement. "The safety of Americans and the security of our way of life are on the line."
Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines, called the Tancredo spot "an incredibly fear-based kind of advertisement that some might say is trying to terrorize people into supporting his view."
Goldford said the commercial's culminating explosion evoked memories of a 1964 ad by President Johnson that used a little girl plucking petals from a daisy and a mushroom cloud to suggest that Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate, would set off a nuclear war.
The new ad says Tancredo would protect Americans from "jihadists who froth with hate." An immigration activist says it's Tancredo "frothing with hate."
"I think this is political pandering at its worst," said spokeswoman Clarissa Martinez of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which backed a congressional compromise that would have allowed some illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. "Unfortunately, we may see more ads like this in 2008."
Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, declined to comment on the ad because the nonprofit is not supposed to engage in political advocacy. But his organization has voiced some of the same concerns as Tancredo. "FAIR has been saying for a long time you can't have the border open only to allow gardeners and busboys into this country and not expect terrorists to take advantage," Mehlman said Monday.
The Tancredo ad begins with the image of a gloved hand jamming a bomb into a backpack. Then it follows a hooded figure, whose face cannot be seen, strolling through a mall as a narrator decries "20 million aliens who have come to take our jobs" and "Islamic terrorists [who] now freely roam U.S. soil."
Footage of bombed-out trains and a boy bloodied in an overseas terrorist attack follow, then pictures of shoppers and a woman pushing a stroller through an airy mall. As the hooded figure leaves the backpack beside a bench and walks away, the narrator announces: "The price we pay for spineless politicians who refuse to defend our borders against those who come to kill." Then the explosion sounds.
The ad appears to play off a report last week that Al Qaeda might target shopping malls in Los Angeles and Chicago this holiday season. Counter-terrorism officials have downplayed the warning, saying it was based on an uncorroborated report from a foreign intelligence source.
Tancredo spokesman Alan Moore said the ad will air next in New Hampshire and then nationally, although he did not provide details on how widely the cash-strapped campaign can afford to place the spots.
When candidates last reported on their finances at the end of September, Tancredo had $110,079 on hand. That would seem to limit use of the ad, titled "Tough on Terror."
In an accompanying radio spot, the congressman promises to "prosecute those who provide sanctuary to anyone who would harm us, deport all those who do not belong here, and put the military on the border if necessary."
Times staff writer Dan Morain in Sacramento contributed to this report.