By Neely Tucker
Friday, May 28, 2010; 1:11 PM
Can he come from nowhere to win, friends and neighbors? Can the butt-kicking legend of Dale Peterson actually come true?
The rifle-toting, tough-talking star of what many consider, either in awe or terror, to be the ultimate American political ad ever now faces the moment of truth in his quest for the once-obscure office of Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries. On Tuesday, Peterson, a 64-year-old political neophyte, must shake off the stardust won by his instant-icon Internet ad during the past two weeks and win the Republican primary.
But there are no reliable statewide polls to suggest the standing of any of the three candidates for the office, and it's anybody's guess whether Peterson and his white cowboy hat will win in a landslide or be written off as a laughingstock.
"I want to run some crooks off and get this state turned around, big guy," he said in a phone interview last week, sounding a lot friendlier than he does in his 71-second campaign spot, now airing on television. "It's not about me. It's about the people of Alabama and the people of this country."
He also noted his approach to leadership: "run point, and you just back me up."
That sort of storm-the-gunners-nest jargon in pursuit of what is not exactly a high-profile job is part of what has led to his ad getting more than 1.7 million hits on YouTube and becoming the instant darling of conservatives everywhere. Sure, Tim James, the Republican candidate for governor, has a spot about making the state's test for a driver's license be written in only English that's generated buzz, but it pales next to Peterson's. The irony-free ad is so over-the-top -- bursting with Peterson's air of righteous indignation, exasperation and I'm-ready-to-kick-your-tail attitude -- that it demands repeat views.
An opening shot framing Marine dog tags and a scroll of the U.S. Constitution dissolves into Peterson riding a horse into the frame, wearing sunglasses and a cowboy hat. The camera jump-cuts every few seconds. Theme music, sounding like it might be from a new episode of "The Rifleman," swells. Peterson doesn't so much address the camera as he barks at it.
He says he's been a Marine, cop, farmer and businessman, then snaps "So listen up!"
He says the agriculture commissioner oversees $5 billion in annual business. "Bet you didn't know that!" he says, as the camera jolts in for a close-up. "You know why? Thugs and criminals!" If they can keep people in the dark, "they can do whatever they want with all that money -- and they don't give a rip about Alabama!"
He says there are "illegals bussed in by the thousands" while his opponents are stealing his yard signs "in the dark of night." He says one competitor, Dorman Grace, brags about taking "illegal money" on his Facebook page.
"Who on earth would support such a dummy? And why? We're Republicans! We should be better than that!"
He then whips out his .30-30 Winchester rifle, saying, "I'm Dale Peterson. I'll take names and take no prisoners!"
And he's gone, leading his horse away from the camera.
"I don't know if it's the best ad ever," he said, laughing, in the telephone interview. "Maybe it's the most direct."
Fans aren't nearly so demure.
Glenn Beck, introducing Peterson on his radio show last week: "I don't know anything about agriculture, I don't know anything about you, Dale, I just think you have the best TV spot I have ever seen."
Chris Matthews, on MSNBC, called it the most "all-out, All-American, hot dog, apple pie and I love my gun, U.S. of A. political ad ever made!"
The Weekly Standard, the British magazine, has a blog that asks: "Why is this man not running for president?" Time's online NewsFeed column calls it "the best campaign ad ever." It is listed under the heading, "Things That Are Awesome."
Two campaigns have been set up on Facebook, urging Peterson to run for president. Another Web site, Dalepetersonfacts.com, makes lists of how tough he is: "Fact #8: Dale Peterson doesn't 'speak softly and carry a big stick,' he carries a big gun and he says whatever the hell he wants." "Fact #24: Before Chuck Norris goes to sleep, he checks under his bed for Dale Peterson."
John Archibald, metro columnist for the Birmingham News, said the ad was startling, even in Alabama, where politicians and guns go together like bourbon and football. "He came out of nowhere," Archibald said. "I'd never heard of Dale Peterson."
In a column, he said the ad "was sort of like David Allan Coe's 'perfect country & western song,' though it didn't say anything at all about Mama, or trucks, or trains, or prison, or gettin' drunk."
The ad was shot on a farm in Huntsville in about two hours, Peterson said, and was done by Ladd Ehlinger Jr., a filmmaker who hosts a radio talk show there.
Peterson is, for the record, a native of Mobile. He was in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1963 to '67, then graduated from the University of Alabama and received a degree in sociology. He was briefly a policeman, then established "the largest industrial laundry facility in the Southeast." He ran a farm of more than 1,000 acres in Georgia in the 1980s. He and his wife Kathy, have been married for more than 30 years. They live on a small farm in Shelby County.
We wondered if, this being the political season, maybe Peterson was putting on the dog a little bit in that ad, hamming it up on-camera while giggling off. (It is, after all, a rather plaintive job that paid $79,026.24 in 2009 and is chiefly concerned with food safety, farm and livestock regulations and helping develop the state's agricultural and industrial trading partners.) One of his opponents, John McMillan (not the one he calls a "dummy") says nope.
"Having gotten to know Mr. Peterson and listened to his stump speech, I felt the ad was pretty much in line with his personality and philosophy," McMillan said, calling in from the campaign trail.
Another candidate, Dorman Grace (the "dummy"), has won the endorsements of several major newspapers. In an e-mail exchange, Grace politely declined to go mano a mano.
"I'm not going to engage in negative, personal attacks. I'm running a positive campaign that focuses on cutting spending, reducing regulations, holding the line on taxes and opening new markets for Alabama farm products."
While it's unclear who Alabama voters will pick, North Carolina's Jason Bostic saw Peterson's ad and immediately set up the Web site about his toughness.
"I'm a southern boy, that's the kind of politician we deserve," said Bostic, who runs his own marketing company. "It was nice to see a fellow southern state who has someone like that. . . . hopefully, the legend will just continue to grow."