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'Godless' ad sets off war of words between Hagan, Dole

Democrat threatens possible legal action, Republican campaign says TV attack is fair game.

By Lisa Zagaroli
lzagaroli@charlotteobserver.com

A heated campaign that has Elizabeth Dole fighting to keep her U.S. Senate seat turned more negative Wednesday when a new political ad suggested her challenger is “godless” – prompting legal threats by state Sen. Kay Hagan.

Dole, a Republican, is trying with the ad to shore up the traditional GOP constituency of conservative Christians, a group that could be crucial to her re-election. The multimillion-dollar battle between Dole and Hagan could determine whether Democrats have a veto-proof majority in the U.S. Senate.

Hagan, a Democrat who teaches Sunday school and is an elder at her Presbyterian church in Greensboro, said she was furious about the television ad, which links her to an atheist group. The ad ends with a picture of Hagan but another woman's voice saying “There is no God.”

“Elizabeth Dole is attacking my strong Christian faith,” Hagan said in a conference call with reporters, adding that Dole should be “ashamed of herself” for running such an ad. But Dole's campaign says it's accurate.

The ad has its roots in a September fundraiser held in honor of Hagan in Boston by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and other Democratic supporters who want to keep control of the U.S. Senate.

The event was co-hosted by 35 people, and held at the home of Woody Kaplan, who is listed on the advisory board for a group called the Godless Americans Political Action Committee.

The group represents atheists and wants to strip references to God from government venues. It wants to remove references to God from the Pledge of Allegiance and from U.S. currency – both of which Hagan opposes.

Kaplan said Wednesday the fundraiser for Hagan had nothing to do with the Godless Americans group.

“This event happened to be at my house,” said Kaplan, who gave $2,300 to Hagan and has contributed to many other Democrats. “I don't know if any of those people (other co-hosts) are religious or not, whether they're Muslims, Christians, Jews or whoever. I have no idea, I never asked them when I went to their houses, and I bet you no candidate did either.”

Dole's ad opens with an announcer declaring: “A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan's honor,” then airs video of two PAC members describing their beliefs, including a woman who says, “There was no Jesus.”

The announcer then says, “Godless Americans and Kay Hagan. She hid from cameras. Took Godless money. What did Hagan promise in return?”

Kaplan wasn't in the ad, and says though he did agree to be listed as an adviser, he's done no work with the group.

Hagan threatened to seek a cease-and-desist order if Dole didn't pull the ad within 24 hours. Dole's campaign said it had no intention of stopping the ad.

Positive appeals based on religion can work, especially in the South, said Mark Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University in Virginia who has written about religion in politics.

“Negative appeals questioning the other candidate's faith commitment can backfire though,” he said.

“Dole is clearly concerned at this late date that she still has to do something to mobilize the religious conservative base of the GOP to turn out.”

Still, Rozell said, Hagan should have known better than to attend because Dole's campaign publicized Kaplan's link to the atheist group in August, as the fundraising event approached.

“I think a more savvy politician would have kept distance from such a gathering, just to avoid exactly what's happening right now,” Rozell said. “She has to be spending crucial time at the end of her campaign explaining” her association.

Asked why she attended, Hagan said she doesn't vet her political contributors based on religious preference.

Last-ditch attempts to salvage close campaigns are nothing new to North Carolina politics. Among the most extreme was the 1990 ad from former Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., showing a white man's hands crumpling a job rejection letter and suggesting minority quotas were to blame.

Dole spokesman Dan McLagan said the ad accurately reflects what the group stands for and Hagan's association with it.

He said U.S. senators confirm federal judges who might decide cases like the Godless Americans' agenda.

“The courtroom is the front lines of this effort to remove God from public discourse,” McLagan said. The ad is fair game, he says, because Hagan has attacked Dole for being “in the pocket of big oil” since some of her contributors work for energy companies.

“She has got some gall after $18 million that her New York and Washington friends have spent attacking Senator Dole saying all kinds of untrue and ridiculous things and to now say “Oh, you can't talk about us and who we are raising money from.' Heavens,” he said.

Among the most memorable anti-Dole ads – run by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and not by Hagan directly – show two elderly men in rocking chairs debating whether Dole is 92 or 93. It's a reference to a ranking of influence an outside group gave her, but also smacks of ageism, some critics have said.

Charlotte voter Carolyn Peters said Wednesday she was shocked that Dole, who attended Peters' church recently, would condone the “godless” ad.

“I think it's reprehensible. It's the lowest common denominator. It's hate speech,” said Peters, a consultant for Wachovia.

Joe Sinsheimer of Raleigh, a former Democratic consultant, said both campaigns are at fault.

“Elizabeth Dole should be embarrassed to run an ad that is little more than sleazy guilt by association, and Kay Hagan should fire the staffer responsible for vetting the Boston fundraiser that's now at the center of these ads,” he said.

Observer reporters Jim Morrill and Mark Johnson and Maria Recio of McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.

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