Thursday, July 6, 2006

Scott Howell is credited with being the mastermind of the happy, family-guy political ads that helped John Thune unseat Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in 2004, but also is responsible for the so-called “Hitler” ads that were a factor in the gubernatorial loss last year of death-penalty advocate Jerry W. Kilgore.

Mr. Howell, president of Dallas-based Republican media firm Scott Howell and Co., has been called one of the most impressive political consultants of this decade. Democrats detest him for his role in the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in 2004, as well as for ads that helped defeat Sen. Max Cleland, Georgia Democrat, in 2002.

Sen. George Allen of Virginia and Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri, Republicans who are facing re-election bids this fall, have chosen Mr. Howell’s firm and expect upbeat ads to dominate their campaigns.

“I like to keep it positive,” Mr. Allen told The Washington Times when asked about his choice for an ad firm.

Mr. Allen’s campaign has been dominated by uplifting biographical ads portraying him as a good father and a friend of the working man. His challenger, James H. Webb Jr., a decorated Vietnam veteran and secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, has not begun airing ads.

Some observers predict that Mr. Howell will turn the campaign negative.

Mr. Howell was a media consultant for Republican Saxby Chambliss, who defeated Mr. Cleland. Mr. Chambliss ran ads showing photos of Mr. Cleland’s face alternating with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Mr. Howell, who has done work for President Bush, has said he was not responsible for those ads.

Upon hearing that Mr. Kilgore retained Howell and Co. for the gubernatorial race in Virginia, Mr. Daschle criticized the Chamblis ads and warned fellow Democrats that the Howell firm “wins races through character assassination.”

“These people are dangerous and must be stopped,” Mr. Daschle said.

Mr. Howell said he crafts campaign messages specifically for each candidate, state and political environment. “I don’t like to commit to any kind of strategy because every campaign brings a different set of circumstances,” he said.

“The body of my work has been largely positive,” Mr. Howell told The Times. “There are isolated campaigns that people would like to sit there and highlight, but the bottom line is we try to be very hopeful and forward-thinking and positive and try to tell the story, and draw contrasts where they are appropriate.”

Mr. Kilgore, a former Virginia attorney general, said politicians need to strike a balance. He said negative campaigning sometimes is necessary to outline differences and to make an opponent “stand up and take notice.”

In October, Mr. Kilgore aired a series of ads featuring crime victims declaring that Timothy M. Kaine would oppose the death penalty even for Adolf Hitler. Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, won that election after many voters said they were disgusted by those ads.

Mr. Talent, running against Missouri state Auditor Claire McCaskill, has not started broadcasting ads. Talent staffers said Mr. Howell’s ads were a large part of the senator’s success in the 2002 special election.

Mr. Howell said both the Allen and Talent campaigns are likely to focus on the senators’ records and personalities, mirroring the message that helped Mr. Thune beat Mr. Daschle, an 18-year incumbent.

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