'Taliban Dan' Ad: Grayson's 'Bridge Too Far'?

Has Rep. Alan Grayson gone a bridge too far in his campaign to keep his Orlando-based congressional seat? The media ruckus over his "Taliban Dan" attack on his challenger, Dan Webster, would suggest so, but his campaign thinks not, despite having been caught editing a video clip to make Webster appear to say the opposite of what he really said.

Grayson's spokesman, Sam Drzymala, concedes "the ad has gotten a lot of attention," but says that only means "people are hearing about his (Webster's) awful record, including trapping women in abusive relationships."

As evidence of the Grayson battle plan's success, Drzymala cites three things: an internal poll the week after the primary that had Grayson ahead 13 points, 40-27; the $4 million raised from some 50,000 individuals nationwide, and its ground game, which the Orlando Sentinel reports "has been canvassing...since October, a time frame nearly unheard-of by a freshman congressman." (The poll, by the way, was done while a negative ad campaign was being waged against Grayson and others by Americans for Prosperity.)

What the hullabaloo over "Taliban Dan" obscures is the barrage of in-your-face assaults by Grayson that built to this juncture. The district, Florida's 8th, leans decidedly Republican. Conventional wisdom would posit that, given that history, Grayson would tack to the center. Conventional wisdom couldn't be more wrong.

As the Sentinel reported, Grayson is an unabashed liberal who "has developed a reputation as a bare-knuckle brawler with attacks that seem plucked from the Republican playbook...It has earned him rock-star status among the Democratic faithful...MSNBC's Chris Matthews has called him 'Captain Cojones.' He is trailed by a smitten film crew making a documentary called 'Street Fighting Man: The Political Mind of Alan Grayson.'"

In contrast, the same report describes Webster as "the low-key owner of an air-conditioning business" who in 28 years in the state Legislature rose to become both House speaker and Senate majority leader before being term-limited in 2008.

"Webster hasn't responded with attack ads of his own," the Sentinel reported, preferring to make the election about "brokenness in Washington."

Grayson's weapons of choice have been TV attack ads and almost daily email blitzes. Webster's web site denies all charges.

August 25: Upon learning that "Daniel Webster" had won the Republican primary, he emailed supporters a mock news release, quoting himself: "Didn't he die, like, 150 years ago? ...Can't the Republicans find anyone to run against me who's alive?" It concluded: "Webster, when asked to comment, replied 'Tippecanoe, and Tyler too.'"

August 27: Grayson's first TV ad eschewed the humor, going after Webster's vote to cut $1 billion in state aid to public education and to divert school funding to private school vouchers.

September 2-5: When Americans for Prosperity poured $261,000 into attack ads against Grayson and two other Florida Democrats, Grayson called David Koch, one of its billionaire founders, "the man who would be king" who, he said, had bought a "get out of jail free card" in 2000 with donations to the GOP after being indicted on 97 counts of violating the Clean Air Act and escaping $350 million in fines "for six cents on the dollar."

September 17: He called Webster a "chicken hawk" who advocates "indefinite" occupation in Afghanistan, putting this video clip in evidence, and questioned his avoiding military service during the Vietnam War with seven deferments.

September 20: After the 60-Plus Association, which AARP has identified as "a front group for the pharmaceutical industry," rolled out $5 million in ads warning seniors in the districts of 16 Democrats (including Grayson's) about health care reform, Grayson emailed, "It looks like the drug companies really, really hate me."

Grayson then tied those ads to Webster who, he said, "wants to cut Social Security by over $1,000 per year for every senior in Florida." On video, Webster had said he wanted to "take back some of the COLAs for the entitlement programs" to 2007 levels, a loss of about $100 a month if he meant Social Security cost of living adjustments, which he now denies.

September 23: Next, Caligula's horse. "During the Roman Empire," he emailed, "the Senate was simply a debating society, chosen by the Emperor, and serving at his pleasure. To prove this point, in 39 A.D., Emperor Caligula appointed his horse, Incitatus, to the Roman Senate... (Today) Big Money doesn't put horses in Congress. Just the hind-quarters of horses."

"Big Money," he explained, is the wealth supporting Webster's campaign from the coffers of "Big Oil" (Americans for Prosperity), "Big Pill" (60-plus Association) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's $100,000 ad buy.

September 25: "Taliban Dan" began airing this past Saturday. It purports to quote Webster: "Wives, submit yourself to your own husband," as evidence of his "radical" ideas about women's role.

Webster at first refused to talk about the charge to a local TV reporter, but Monday his campaign released the full video clip. (Both the ad and the full clip can be viewed here.) In it, Webster advises husbands at a religious gathering about biblical passages they should not choose when praying for loved ones, the very passages the Grayson ad quotes.

Grayson's campaign manager, Susannah Randolph, defended the ad, noting Webster's ties to the organization that hosted the gathering, the Institute in Basic Life Principles, which, the Sentinel reported, "has taught that women should be subservient to their husbands and not work outside the home. While in the state House in 1990, Webster spent $4,340 of taxpayer money to print and mail a district flier urging constituents to attend one of the group's seminars."

New waves of Grayson emails tried to refocus attention on Webster's legislative attempts to deny abortions even in cases of rape or incest, to deny battered women health care as a "pre-existing condition," and to create "covenant marriages," which, among other things, could be dissolved "only in cases of adultery," but not if the wife were the adulterer or the adultery were committed "with the intent to procure a divorce."

"We make decisions on messaging based on the content of the message," Drzymala told me. "For example, Webster's record on women is a very serious issue."

A bridge too far? November 2 will tell.

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