FOUR WEEKS before Election Day, the campaign for governor in Virginia has reached a new level of nastiness. As strategists for Republican nominee Jerry W. Kilgore promised nearly a year ago, they are trying to make the death penalty -- and Democratic nominee Timothy M. Kaine's opposition to it -- the centerpiece of the race as it enters the homestretch. But their chosen method -- including a TV ad suggesting that Mr. Kaine, the lieutenant governor, is morally suspect for having served as a court-appointed attorney representing a death row inmate a decade ago -- is loathsome.

The Kilgore campaign unveiled the ad yesterday, shortly after Mr. Kilgore, the former attorney general, held a conference call with journalists. He was careful not to imply, as he has in the past, that there is something wrong with representing defendants or convicts in capital cases. Rather, he said that attorneys such as Mr. Kaine who have taken an active public stance against the death penalty are not "entitled" to be governor.

But Mr. Kilgore's ad blurs that distinction. In it, an elderly man, Stanley Rosenbluth, whose son was murdered by one of Mr. Kaine's former clients, says emotionally: "Tim Kaine voluntarily represented the person who murdered my son. He stood with murderers in trying to get them off death row." He also says flatly that Mr. Kaine "says Adolf Hitler doesn't qualify for the death penalty."

No one can feel anything but compassion for Mr. Rosenbluth, whose son, Richard, and daughter-in-law, Becky, were brutally murdered 12 years ago. The murderer, Mark A. Sheppard, was executed in 1999. But the insinuation that court-appointed lawyers for death row inmates are morally remiss is off the mark. In fact, lawyers who agree to do defense work in capital cases are critical to ensuring that justice is carried out.

Nor is the comment about Hitler on target. Speaking to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Mr. Kaine was asked whether Hitler or other genocidal murderers deserved the death penalty. His response was nuanced -- perhaps lethally so for a politician. "God grants life and God should take it away," he said -- except possibly in cases of self-defense. But when pressed, he added that Hitler, among others, might have deserved to be executed: "Of course they may for doing something heinous, they don't deserve to live in civilized society, they may deserve the death penalty."

In Virginia, which has carried out more executions than any state save Texas, Mr. Kaine's stance on capital punishment has caused him no end of grief. As a practicing Catholic, he is morally opposed to the death penalty, and in the past he has backed a moratorium on executions. But he has pledged that if elected he would carry out the law and allow executions to proceed, barring glaring legal problems.

Mr. Kilgore has said that Mr. Kaine's activist public record in opposing the death penalty strips his position of credibility. He's entitled to argue that case. But to use Mr. Kaine's courtroom work as an appointee of the state Supreme Court is beyond the pale. That work should be lauded as a public service, not smeared by Mr. Kilgore.