An image from a commercial for Ed Gillespie's 2017 campaign for Virginia governor. (Ed Gillespie for Governor)

Al Cardenas, the former head of the American Conservative Union, has long lauded Republican Ed Gillespie for his campaign to diversify the GOP and recruit minority candidates.

Now Cardenas is among a cluster of Republican leaders, operatives and Gillespie associates who are struggling to embrace the rhetoric he's deploying in his race for Virginia governor against Democrat Ralph Northam.

In recent days, they have expressed disapproval over Gillespie’s campaign commercials, including one defending Confederate monuments and another about MS-13 street gangs that Democrats have cast as being anti-immigrant. A third Gillespie ad, intended to disparage Northam’s support for restoring felons’ voting rights, highlighted the case of a convicted sex offender.

“Ed Gillespie used to be the champion of diversity in the GOP,” Cardenas tweeted Monday.

In an interview, Cardenas said that he remains supportive of Gillespie’s candidacy but that his “ads don’t represent the flavor of someone who has been embracing diversity for so long.”

“These ads are, frankly, very disappointing to me,” said Cardenas, the Cuban-born former head of Florida’s GOP. “That’s the work of consultants who want to ride the wave I find very disappointing in our party — that angry populist wave that seems to be in favor with many. I can just imagine a justification by the campaign, but I’m not sure we’re a better country if we accept these norms.”

Gillespie, responding to the general criticism of his ads from GOP allies, brushed off the negative feedback.

“They should look at my policies, and they’ll see that I’m putting forward policies to address the needs we face and the challenges we face in the commonwealth,” Gillespie said. “People are free to vote — that’s one of the great things about this country — and they are free to have their opinion.”

In recent days, Republican allies and strategists, as well as longtime Gillespie associates, have also voiced critiques, including some on social media.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, an author and former Gillespie colleague who left the Republican Party after President Trump’s victory, tweeted last week: “I worked with @EdWGillespie on the Romney campaign; a great guy now covering himself in filth.”

Six hours later, Norm Ornstein, who taught Gillespie as a professor at Catholic University, responded to Schoenfeld’s tweet: “I knew Ed when he was a college student. Man, how he has fallen! Right into the gutter.” The next day, Ornstein followed up with a second tweet that was retweeted 2,500 times: “Ed Gillespie is running one of the most vile campaigns I have seen in a long time. He really should be ashamed of himself.”

Doug Stafford, a political strategist for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), tweeted an obscenity to describe his view of one Gillespie ad and, in another tweet, wrote: “So the last 3 ads by @EdGillespie are: gangs, people getting their voting rights back and monuments. The dog whistle is a little loud, Ed.”

Then Stafford tweeted, “I am a conservative Republican and I know Ed personally. And his TV ad campaign is gross.” Reached by phone, Stafford said that Gillespie “can do better” but declined to elaborate except to say that he has not “made up my mind” whether he would vote for the Republican next week.

Bruce Bartlett, a former adviser to President Ronald Reagan who switched from Republican to independent a decade ago, was a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation in the 1980s, a period when he knew Gillespie, then Rep. Richard Armey’s chief spokesman, as a “mainstream Republican.”

On Friday, Bartlett tweeted to his 53,000 followers: “I will not be able to vote for my old friend Ed Gillespie. His pandering to racists & neo-Confederates is reprehensible.”

In an interview, Bartlett said, “Based on what I know about him and his character, this is something he’s doing under duress — the duress of a campaign that’s probably close. He feels he needs to shore up the base of his party, and unfortunately the base of his party is rank scum.”

Responding to Bartlett, Gillespie’s campaign digital director, Eric Wilson, in his own tweet, accused the author of “going after Ed Gillespie to gin up sales for his new book. Sadly, the media gives these washed up GOPers a second chance as Republican bashers. Note it’s never people at the top of their careers.”

As a lobbyist, former counsel to President George W. Bush and Republican National Committee chair, Gillespie personifies the Republican establishment that President Trump railed against in his victorious campaign. And while Hillary Clinton won Virginia, the president’s support in the commonwealth is sufficient enough to force Gillespie — even as he has maintained distance from the White House — to invoke Trumpian rhetoric to attract conservative rural voters.

David Ramadan, a Republican and a former Virginia state delegate who is a Gillespie ally, said that his friend is “stuck in a political climate stemming out of Washington” that doesn’t allow a candidate to posture as “pro-immigrant and for a bigger tent and what we’ve known about Ed Gillespie for the last 15 or 20 years.”

Ramadan blamed Gillespie’s ads on the candidate’s campaign consultants.

“He will be a better governor than his own campaign,” said Ramadan, who plans on voting for Gillespie. “I know Ed well enough to know that Ed is not a racist. I have no issues with Ed Gillespie’s morality.”

Michael Steele, a Gillespie ally and former RNC chair who has also advocated a more diverse party, said the TV commercials are “not indicative of who he [Gillespie] is or what he thinks.”

But Steele also chided Northam’s campaign for not disavowing an ad sponsored by the Latino Victory Fund in which a man driving a pickup truck with a Gillespie bumper sticker is chasing after a cluster of terrified minority children. The group made the ad in response to Gillespie’s commercials but took it down Tuesday night after the driver of a truck killed eight people in New York in what police are calling a terrorist attack.

“They’re both ads that have no place in the campaign,” Steele said. “But let’s look at this across the board and not just at Ed Gillespie. Both campaigns have gone to that space in an unfortunate way.”

Yet Ornstein, who has moderated panels on which Gillespie served, said the imagery evoked by the Republican’s campaign shows “a level of amorality that even in rough-and-tumble politics is encouraging the worst instincts in people.”

“These commercials hit me in the wrong way,” he said. “I get that campaigns can do dirty things or appeal to baser instincts, but maybe I held him to a higher standard that represented what I thought I knew about him. You have choices you make in political life about how far you’re going to go, and this, to me, was too far.”

Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.