Adolf Hitler became a central character in the Virginia governor's race this week as Republican Jerry W. Kilgore's campaign used the Nazi leader's name in an emotional ad on the death penalty, prompting an outcry Friday from some Jewish leaders.
One day after the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, the Anti-Defamation League condemned Kilgore for using Holocaust imagery to advance his political agenda. Kilgore's ad accuses Democrat Timothy M. Kaine of not supporting the death penalty, even for Hitler, who died in his Berlin bunker in 1945.
"Such references are inappropriate and insensitive, and, as part of a discussion of the death penalty in the Commonwealth of Virginia, trivialize the horrors of the Holocaust," wrote David Friedman, a regional director for the group.
The use of Hitler's name and the reaction to it threatened to blunt what political observers said may have been Kilgore's most effective assault to date on Kaine's record.
Kilgore aides stood by the ad again Friday. They said the comment about Hitler was taken from a recent interview Kaine gave to the Richmond Times-Dispatch and represents the views of Stanley Rosenbluth, the father of a murder victim, who is himself Jewish.
"The sentiments uttered by Mr. Rosenbluth were his own," said Kilgore spokesman J. Tucker Martin. "He's entitled to share that experience and to let people know how he feels. Neither that ad, nor [Kaine's] anti-death-penalty record, are going away."
Kilgore also recruited U.S. Rep. Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.), a member of the House leadership who is Jewish, to counter the criticism. He said he was not offended by the use of Hitler's name.
"There's a real difference here in the use of Adolf Hitler," Cantor said. "Mr. Rosenbluth was trying to illustrate that Tim Kaine's views are so extreme, he wouldn't put the ultimate killer to death."
Holocaust references have become almost off-limits in American politics as Jewish leaders have begun to pounce on what they say are cynical attempts to capitalize on the emotional power of the genocide.
U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) was chastised for accusing Senate Republicans of acting like Nazis. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan was taken to task for comparing the Terri Schiavo case to the killings at Auschwitz. And in Virginia, state Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) was reprimanded for comparing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to the Holocaust.
"It's so irresponsible to use that kind of imagery, in many ways it becomes meaningless," Friedman said in an interview. "It really obscures and confuses rather than helps."
In Kilgore's ad, Rosenbluth talks about the murder of his son and daughter-in-law in 1993 and Kaine's participation in the killer's death penalty appeal. Rosenbluth says: "Tim Kaine says that Adolf Hitler doesn't qualify for the death penalty. This was the worst mass murder in modern times."
Kaine has said that his Catholic religion leads him to personally oppose the death penalty but that as governor he would uphold state law.
The ADL reaction was echoed by other Jewish leaders in a conference call Friday organized by the Kaine campaign. Rabbi Jack Moline of Alexandria and Tommy Baer, the former president of B'nai B'rith, demanded that Kilgore apologize and withdraw the ad.
"I find it demeaning and morally repugnant. It trivializes the entire period of the Holocaust," Baer told reporters.
Moline, whose daughter is a paid staff member for the Kaine campaign, called it "blasphemy" and said Kilgore owes "an apology to the Jewish people."
Moline and Baer said the reaction from Jewish leaders to the ad was delayed because it was released the day before Yom Kippur, the most holy day on the Jewish calendar and a day that Jews typically do not work.
Martin accused Kaine of organizing the conference call Friday to distract from what he knows is an effective campaign ad. "He's trying to do anything to take the focus off his record as an anti-death-penalty activist," Martin said.