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Originally published August 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 7, 2008 at 12:24 AM

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Election 2008

Willie Horton 2.0: Political ad man Floyd Brown aims to sink Obama campaign

Two decades after putting out the infamous Willie Horton ad that helped derail Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential run, Floyd Brown has set up a temporary office in University Place, Pierce County, where he's running a campaign aimed at pushing Sen. Barack Obama's presidential hopes down a similar path.

Seattle Times staff reporter

UNIVERSITY PLACE, Pierce County — Floyd Brown lumbered his 6-foot-6 frame through the doorway at a small cafe here and ordered two coffees.

The woman at the counter craned her neck until she met his eyes.

"My!" she exclaimed. "You block out the sun."

She couldn't have known how deeply her observation might resonate with the many Democrats whose political aspirations the longtime conservative operative has tried to sink.

Brown, 47, is known best for creating a controversial television ad that helped derail Michael Dukakis' presidential run in 1988 by linking the former Massachusetts governor to a prison-furlough program and a felon named Willie Horton.

Two decades later, he's set up a temporary office in the suburbs southwest of Tacoma, where he's running a campaign aimed at pushing Sen. Barack Obama's presidential hopes down a similar path. Brown is producing ads, heavy with innuendo, questioning the Democratic nominee's religious background and patriotism.

"I'm going to go dig up the information that the mainstream media is scared of, the McCain campaign finds difficult to deal with, and may make some people feel uncomfortable," Brown said.

Brown is releasing an ad on his Web site and YouTube every other week and is spreading his message through mass mailers and phone banks. Galleys of his new book, "Obama Unmasked," are stacked in the barren office he's renting through November.

Despite modest funding, mainly from online donors, Brown's efforts have been singled out by the Obama campaign as a prime example of the dangers the candidate faces from attacks by independent groups. Federal regulation of such independent groups has tightened since 2004, when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth put out a series of ads questioning presidential nominee John Kerry's military service.

Still, the Obama campaign has taken an aggressive approach to try to smother similar challenges before they gather steam. Obama's campaign has launched a Web site called "Fight the Smears" aimed at responding to attacks like Brown's. The site includes Brown's name and bio, along with quotes from prominent publications knocking his infamously hostile tactics.

At a news conference in June, Obama himself fingered Brown's efforts as a major reason his campaign opted to forgo public financing, a move that is expected to provide his campaign with a strong financial lead in the coming months.

The Obama campaign's rapid-response approach — and record-breaking fundraising — has made Brown's work more difficult. Still, he is hopeful he can harness the viral nature of online video and forwarded e-mails to compensate for scant TV buys.

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"When I did the Willie Horton ad, it cost over $100,000 to make. Today I can produce an ad on my laptop," Brown said. "Campaigns aren't always about money. Sometimes they're about ideas."

Videos on YouTube

Brown's two political-action committees (PACs) — The Legacy Committee and the National Campaign Fund — combined have less than $60,000 in cash on hand, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission filings. Still, his videos already have posted hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube alone.

Brown's most watched ad — titled "Was He Muslim?" — draws on an Associated Press report that a 6-year-old Obama was enrolled as a Muslim, the religion in which his stepfather was raised, at a Catholic school in Indonesia. Obama is a practicing Christian.

The ad questions whether Obama is telling the truth when he says he's never been a Muslim.

Though the Internet has provided powerful new tools for independent groups — PACs and 527s, named after the tax code they must file under — these groups are facing a political climate that appears less welcoming than in previous election years.

Both Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain have publicly disavowed the kneecapping tactics employed by such groups in the past. But Brown says he won't be deterred.

"McCain has to do that. It doesn't discourage me," he said. "It might discourage people that are less experienced."

Reagan fan at 15

Whether or not Brown is successful in his bid to sink the Obama campaign, his legacy as a feared political operative and pioneer of independent political advertising is undisputed.

The Washington native's interest in politics was sparked at age 15 after he met Ronald Reagan, then a presidential candidate, at a Masonic temple in Oregon. After graduating from the University of Washington, Brown moved to Washington, D.C., to "join the Reagan Revolution."

He advanced quickly, taking on a major role with Republican Bob Dole's 1988 presidential campaign just five years out of college. After George H.W. Bush won the nomination, Brown went to work with the conservative independent group that would produce the infamous Willie Horton ad.

Brown has stayed active in conservative politics since, publishing books attacking other Democratic nominees, dabbling in talk radio and taking speaking engagements across the country.

Still, he remains best known for the Willie Horton ad.

Considered one of the most influential in presidential-campaign history, the ad is studied in university halls and high-school government classes.

And its mention still draws the ire of many on the left.

"Those liberals, they start to foam at the mouth when they hear my name," Brown said.

The ad focused on felon William Horton, who committed armed robbery and rape during a weekend furlough from a prison in Massachusetts, where Dukakis was governor.

The ad, widely considered inflammatory, featured an intimidating mug shot of Horton, who is African American, sporting an unruly Afro and a scruffy beard. He is introduced as "Willie," not William.

"During the '80s you had this elixir of welfare and crime and race, and it was all tied in," said Mark Smith, a professor at the University of Washington who studies the role of special-interest groups in American politics. "There was a lot of working-class angst, and you could really push that race button and get a lot of mileage out of it."

Dukakis' regrets

The Dukakis campaign struggled to respond, and the Democratic nominee saw his front-running campaign take a nose-dive as the message spread. Talk of the ad still elicits sighs of regret from the former Massachusetts governor, who now teaches at UCLA and Northeastern University.

"I did a terrible job of dealing with it," Dukakis said in an interview. "Nobody will make the mistake I made in '88 of not responding to the attack campaigns. I see now that it was a terrible mistake."

Other Democrats have since fallen prey to similar attacks from independent groups, most notably Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee who suffered in the polls after the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a 527, disparaged the Vietnam War veteran's military experience. Pundits have expressed doubt that the Obama campaign — with its rapid-response team — will suffer a similar fate.

But Brown isn't discouraged. For now, he's hunkered down in his small office and waiting for an ad that catches fire.

"We'll test-market a lot of ads, and we will see if any of them are effective. I did a lot of ads in 1988. I'll do a lot of ads this year that are virtually forgotten," he said.

"But every once in a while you hit. ... All I have to do is be a good steward of the resources given to me, go up to the plate, and swing for the fences."

Robert Faturechi: 206-464-2393 or rfaturechi@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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