Rove Protégé Behind Racy Tennessee Ad

US Representative of Tennessee and candidate for US Senator Harold Ford Jr. and Tennessee candidate for US Senate Bob Corker over campaign ad AP / CBS

A protégé of White House political guru Karl Rove produced the controversial Republican National Committee ad targeting Tennessee Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Harold Ford Jr., that some have called racist, CBS News has learned.

The ad, in which a white woman with blonde hair and bare shoulders looks into the camera and whispers, "Harold, call me," and then winks, was produced by Scott Howell, the former political director for Rove's consulting firm in Texas.

The RNC ad doesn't mention that "Harold" is black, but the NAACP and others have complained the commercial makes an implicit appeal to deep-seated racial fears about black men and white women.

The race between Ford Jr. and Republican Bob Corker is among the most competitive and nasty U.S. Senate races in the nation. But it didn't just happen with a racially-charged ad from Republicans, reports CBS News national correspondent Byron Pitts.

The Democrats struck first weeks ago by playing the class card in an add which states that Corker's "personal income grew by 40 percent to $11 million."

Howell is no stranger to controversy. He was media consultant for Sen. Saxby Chambliss when his campaign ran an ad showing a picture of then-Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, who lost his legs in the Vietnam War, alongside Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

He also produced an ad for Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn that accused Democrat Brad Carson of being soft on welfare while showing two black hands counting cash.

Howell also worked for Republican Jerry Kilgore in last year's Virginia gubernatorial race when Kilgore ran an ad saying that Gov. Tim Kaine wouldn't have used the death penalty against Hitler.

Race was always an element of the Tennessee contest as Ford seeks to become the first black man elected to the Senate from the South since Reconstruction. The issue slammed into the public consciousness this week with the latest ad.

Watch RNC political ad attacking Harold Ford Jr.
"I've not met any observer who didn't immediately say, 'Oh my gosh!' It was a race card," said Vanderbilt University professor John Geer, an expert on political attack ads.

The goal of the ad is to persuade people who don't like Ford — and who might have been thinking about sitting at home this election — to vote, reports CBS News correspondent Gloria Borger.

The RNC has taken the ad off the air after a five-day run. However it was still appearing on at least one TV station in Chattanooga — WRCB-TV — as of Wednesday. The station was still airing the ad because it did not want to run the GOP's replacement commercial. The new ad says Ford "voted to recognize gay marriage" and "wants to give the abortion pill to our schoolchildren," reports the Nashville Tennessean.

Hilary Shelton, director of Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the ad plays off fears some people still have about interracial couples.

"In a Southern state like Tennessee, some stereotypes still exist," he said. "There's very clearly some racial subtext in an ad like that."

The RNC, which paid for the ad, denied that it had any racial subtext. Party chairman Ken Mehlman said it was produced by an independent organization, in accordance with campaign finance law, "without the knowledge, the participation, the advice, the approval or the involvement of either the national party or the campaign."

  • Sean Alfano

Comments