THE BLOG

Karl Rove's Playbook Goes Up in Smoke

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

It's impossible to gauge how many Americans were hurt or offended by Mike DeWine's attack ad that used a doctored image of the 9/11 tragedy to smear my husband, Sherrod Brown.

There are all the families, of course, the ones who lost loved ones when the Twin Towers burst into flames and disintegrated into mounds of smoldering rubble. I thought of their anguish when I saw the ad, which starts with Mike DeWine insisting that he approved it and then turns to a fake image of the blazing towers.

I also wondered how many children saw the ad, which was the handiwork of the same firm that produced the 2004 Swift Boat ads against John Kerry. There are so many children whose hearts must still race at the sight of the horrifying images forever seared into their memories. It was, after all, a day that changed all of us.

Far more selfishly, I thought of our own family - our four grown children, and especially Sherrod's elderly mother. As soon as Sherrod learned about the ad, he picked up the phone and called her. "I don't want you finding out about this on TV," he said.

Then I called our youngest, my 19-year-old daughter, Cait. She adores Sherrod, who became her stepfather two years ago, but she's new to the world of politics. I called her at the day camp where she works with preschoolers who light up like fireflies at the sight of her. She greeted my news with silence.

"Cait?"

"Yeah."

"Did you hear what I said?"

"Yeah, Mom," she said softly. "I'm just letting it sink in."

One person definitely not hurt by DeWine's ad was its intended target, Sherrod Brown. This week, two new polls -- both conducted while the DeWine ad ran throughout Ohio -- show Sherrod maintaining an 8-point lead. It helped that a unified Democratic party immediately countered with its own ad, but it also is clear that DeWine's smear tactics have backfired.

DeWine set out to distort my husband's record on national security but ended up generating headlines around the country for digitally altering images of the 9/11 tragedy. The firestorm started after a journalist, U.S. News and World's Bret Schulte, discovered the doctored image. Minutes after his story hit the Web, reporters started calling our campaign. Since then, of course, everyone has become an expert on what it all means.

Much has been written in the last week or so about DeWine's ad. Some journalists have described the deceit as simply politics as usual - a "misstep," or, as one reporter put it, a mere "hiccup."

Others, though, are not so willing to play into the tired old argument that nasty campaigns are as inevitable as Ohio sweet corn in August. As one reporter told us, "DeWine's nice-guy image is gone for good." Several journalists made it clear that they learned a hard lesson from the 2004 presidential race, when reporters waited too long to investigate the false allegations in the Swift Boat ads. This time, some reporters examined DeWine's claims point-by-point and exposed the distortions. They promise they will hold us to the same standard, which is what good journalists should do.

Mike DeWine failed in his shameful attempt to misrepresent my husband's record and prey on Americans' fears. But that doesn't mean he won't try again. His poll numbers are lagging, and he has a long record of betraying the working families he was supposed to serve. Surely, there's a lot more ugly on the way from DeWine and the ad firm he refused to fire.

No one knows that better than Sherrod. He's been in Ohio politics for more than 30 years, and he has a long memory. He remembers another Ohio Senate race, in 1992, when DeWine attacked Sen. John Glenn, a decorated war hero and astronaut, as being soft on communism. That year, the Columbus Dispatch offered up this quote from the DeWine campaign: "If Glenn had his way the Berlin Wall still would be standing and former Soviet republics still would be enslaved."

Sherrod remembers that. He remembers who won that race, too, and it wasn't Mike DeWine.

Last Friday, a week after Sherrod first saw DeWine's attack ad, he sat down at his computer and typed a letter to his entire campaign staff. It was a rare afternoon at home for us, and I could hear the click-click-click of his keyboard as I folded laundry down the hall. It had been a long but exhilarating week for everyone, and he knew exactly what he wanted to say.

First, he praised his campaign field operation for recruiting hundreds of volunteers to march in more than a dozen parades over a single weekend in southern Ohio. Then Sherrod turned to what he knew was on everybody's minds.

He assured our overwhelmingly young and devoted staff that DeWine's sleaze tactics were wheezing gasps in a lifeless campaign. Then he reminded them why our campaign is so different.

"On our side, there is a palpable passion for change, an enthusiasm the state hasn't seen since 1982 (before most of you were born), and a belief that our country can do a lot better. And we will continue to run an aggressive, always honest and honorable campaign to get there."

Long before a single vote has been counted, we've already won.

Connie Schultz is a writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist from Ohio . She is currently on a leave of absence to help her husband, Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), in his race for the U.S. Senate. Earlier this year, Random House released Connie's first book, "Life Happens: And Other Unavoidable Truths," a collection of columns about kids, dogs, politics, men, women, and how it works except when it doesn't. Her next book, about her husband's Senate race, will be published in Spring 2007. She can be reached at schultz.connie@gmail.com.