Democratic media strategists David Eichenbaum and Karl Struble knew the television attack was coming, but they didn't know what form it would take.
Their client, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Timothy M. Kaine, had a long history of opposing the death penalty, which put him at odds with about three-quarters of the people in the state he wants to lead. Kaine's opponent, former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, is a vocal advocate of capital punishment who wants to add to the list of people eligible for the death penalty.
But the real opponent for Struble and Eichenbaum was Republican media consultant Scott Howell, one of the country's most successful GOP strategists and a rival from past campaigns.
What Howell produced was one of the most arresting images in recent campaign television: a widow, seated in a darkened studio, on the verge of tears and tremulously talking about the man on death row who murdered her police officer husband.
"How could you not think the death penalty was appropriate? That's not justice," she says. "When Tim Kaine calls the death penalty murder, I find it offensive, and I don't trust Tim Kaine to uphold that law."
Eichenbaum said his first thought was: "It's emotionally very powerful." And then he thought: "This could go either way."
The ad -- and a subsequent spot that showed a grieving father who criticized Kaine for voluntarily representing death row inmates in their appeals and who said Kaine believed even Adolf Hitler was not a candidate for execution -- electrified a race that until then had seemed to many voters one without compelling characters or transcendent issues. But it also demonstrates the unpredictability of emotional appeals to voters.
A Washington Post poll conducted last week found that two of three Virginia voters said the ads were "unfair," including nearly 75 percent of the self-described independents that both campaigns covet. Even 60 percent of those who favor the death penalty said the ads crossed the line. Those who had an unfavorable opinion of Kilgore jumped 10 points, and those who believed he "would say anything to get elected" increased 16 points, to 55 percent.
"It sounds like voters have really rebelled against this ad and are punishing the messenger," said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University who has written extensively on the subject of political advertising.
No one knows whether the death penalty ads will move many voters to choose either Kilgore or Kaine, the state's lieutenant governor. The death penalty ranks far down the list of issues that Virginia voters say are most important to them. And voters don't necessarily oppose candidates they think run negative campaigns. But the ads, along with the response from the Kaine campaign, provide a look at the high stakes that come with the millions of dollars in television advertising that is part of a modern statewide campaign.
"If we win this race, I think you could go back [to the death penalty ads] and say this is where we could have won or lost it," Eichenbaum said.
The team of Struble and Eichenbaum have lost a few to Howell, a proficient and controversial consultant who is a protege of White House adviser Karl Rove and who has worked for President Bush. His Web site boasts that his company won 11 of 12 contests in 2002; among the Democrats he has helped unseat are former senators Max Cleland of Georgia and Thomas A. Daschle of South Dakota.
Howell's work on the campaign of Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) was particularly divisive because of ads that painted Cleland -- a decorated Vietnam veteran who lost three limbs in battle -- as weak on defense.
Howell's death penalty ads, which the poll indicated have been seen by about 80 percent of Virginia voters, were striking, spare, intimate and personal. Howell declined to be interviewed for this article, according to the Kilgore campaign. He told the Nation magazine last week: "Emotion, whether it's humor, angst, whether it makes you laugh or cry, it helps people to respond. We're in a sound-bite world, and you have to work to get people's attention."
Eichenbaum said there were Democrats who saw the ads "who thought the campaign was over."
The Kaine campaign had settled on its response to a death penalty attack long ago. Kaine appeared alone and spoke directly to the camera.
"My faith teaches life is sacred," said Kaine, who has talked extensively during the campaign about being a religious Catholic. "That's why I personally oppose the death penalty. But I take my oath of office seriously. And I'll enforce the death penalty. As governor, I'll carry out death sentences handed down by Virginia juries, because that's the law."
Many Democrats thought it a weak response, but Eichenbaum disagreed. "I always believed that Tim has always been his best advocate."
The Kaine campaign was aided by an overwhelmingly negative reaction to the ads from the state's leading newspaper editorial boards. "I've never seen the kind of editorial criticism that I've seen of Kilgore in this race," Eichenbaum said. The campaign added a second ad quoting from the newspapers, with words such as "smear" and "dishonest" scrolling across the screen.
"Third-party validation is important," Eichenbaum said.
Kilgore removed the ads and began new ones last Monday, Eichenbaum said, and the Kaine response ad has stopped airing as well. Before the ads, a Washington Post poll asked voters whether they believed Kaine's statement that though he personally opposed the death penalty, he would enforce the law. Sixty-five percent of likely voters said yes. Asked again last week after the ad barrage, 68 percent said they believed him.
Nonetheless, Kilgore press secretary Tim Murtaugh said he believed the ads had done their job, which he said included portraying Kaine as liberal.
"The fact that we're still talking about it three weeks later" shows the ads were effective, he said. "If we were shying away from the death penalty, Jerry Kilgore wouldn't be mentioning it in every speech."
Staff writer Michael D. Shear and staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.