CHARLOTTE, N.C. — U.S. Senate candidate Kay Hagan launched legal action against Sen. Elizabeth Dole's "godless" attack ad Thursday as a chorus of critics joined her in accusing Dole of crossing the line with the controversial TV spot.
Democratic challenger Hagan, in a new ad of her own, accused the Republican incumbent of "bearing false witness against fellow Christians" when Dole suggested she was affiliated with a group of atheists who want to remove references to God from the public arena.
Dole continued to defend the ad, saying it "in no way attacks her faith, it questions her agenda."
But even Republicans — including strategists Ed Rollins and Carter Wrenn — roundly criticized Dole's eleventh-hour strategy for winning re-election to her Senate seat.
"When you're making ads that say, 'There is no God,' it usually means your campaign doesn't have a prayer,” said Alex Castellanos, a GOP consultant speaking Thursday on CNN. He's familiar with controversial ads — he created former Sen. Jesse Helms' infamous "white hands" ad suggesting opponent Harvey Gantt supported racial quotas that would take away jobs from white people.
Rollins, a longtime GOP political adviser, told CNN: "They did something desperate, which is so despicable and so un-like Elizabeth Dole that she should be ashamed of herself. "
Hagan Thursday filed notice of her intent to sue in Wake Superior Court, claiming statements in the ad are false and defamatory.
The court document highlights the ad's ending, which shows Hagan's photo but uses another woman's voice saying "There is no God."
Hagan, a Sunday school teacher and elder at her Presbyterian church in Greensboro, also aired a rebuttal ad Thursday, charging that Dole "faked my voice…to make you think I don't believe in God."
A new Rasmussen poll, taken Wednesday after the Dole ad began airing, showed Hagan ahead of Dole 52-46. A new survey by Civitas, taken Monday through Wednesday, showed Hagan up by a smaller margin.
Dole's ad focuses on Hagan's attendance at a Boston fundraiser hosted by 35 people aiming to maintain a Democratic majority in the Senate. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., headlined the printed invitation.
The fundraiser was held at the home of Woody Kaplan, an adviser to the Godless Americans PAC, a group that wants to remove references to God from U.S. currency and the Pledge of Allegiance, among other things. Kaplan said the group had no connection to the reception he held.
Dole's ad airs video footage, shot by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, of Hagan standing beside a man at the fundraiser, as the announcer talks about a leader of the Godless Americans hosting a fundraiser.
Ironically, the man standing with her is actually her former Bible teacher, Rick Stone, who moved to Boston after retiring as a religion professor from Guilford and Greensboro Christian colleges.
"The idea that Kay Hagan is an atheist or promoting an atheist agenda is false," said Stone, who is now studying at the Harvard divinity school.
A Dole spokesman said Thursday the campaign has received positive feedback from folks appalled to learn that Hagan attended the fundraiser even though Dole had publicized in advance that it was being held at the home of a Godless Americans adviser.
Dole, who is on a bus tour of North Carolina, said in a phone interview that Hagan made the ad fair game by attacking her for attending a fundraiser at the home of a Bush supporter, and also by accusing Dole of being "in the pocket of Big Oil" because some of her contributors work for energy companies.
The ad "turns the table on her," Dole said, asking "why in the world" Hagan would attend knowing the host's affiliation.
Campaigning at a Raleigh early voting site, Hagan called the ad "despicable."
Her rebuttal ad, which began airing Thursday, features Hagan saying: "My faith guides my life and Senator Dole knows it…My campaign is about creating jobs and fixing our economy, not bearing false witness against fellow Christians."
Hagan has 20 days to file a full lawsuit, but defamation suits are hard to win, legal experts say.
"There are a host of reasons this is not likely to be viable," said Amanda Martin, a Raleigh lawyer specializing in First Amendment law. "Political speech is at the very heart of what is protected by the First Amendment."
But such suits can take years to resolve: North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper is still defending himself from a defamation suit stemming from an ad in his 2000 election.
While Dole's ad aims to motivate the GOP's conservative Christian base, longtime GOP strategist Wrenn says the ad could backfire if respected Hagan supporters argue in their own ads that Dole "crosses the line of decency."
Wrenn wrote: "My guess is the next sound you may hear will be the roof falling in on Liddy Dole."
Contributing to this story were Jim Morrill, Ryan Teague Beckwith and Rob Christensen.