With less than three months left in a lopsided race for Texas governor, Democrat Wendy Davis has launched an advertising campaign blasting Republican Greg Abbott for ruling against a rape victim while he served on the state's highest court.
A political spot appearing on television airwaves shows a partial reenactment of a harrowing sexual assault in which a vacuum cleaner salesman attacked a young mother inside her home in Seguin.
The victim later sued and won $160,000 judgment against The Kirby Co., an award that was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court despite a dissenting vote from Abbott, who served on the court at the time of the ruling.
"And while her children slept in the next room, the salesman brutally raped the young mother," an announcer intones in the spot.
The advertising blitz coincided with news conferences touting Davis' history of championing legislation in support of rape victims. Davis appeared on the steps of Houston City Hall Monday with a sexual assault survivor and a poster displaying paperwork from a rape kit.
Abbott's campaign issued a written statement calling the commercial "despicable" and an example of "gutter politics."
"No amount of desperate distortion attempts or token ad buys by Sen. Davis can change the facts of Greg Abbott's record of fighting for Texans," the Abbott campaign statement said.
Davis defended the tough negative ad, basically saying she has an obligation to point out her opponent's record on issues involving sexual assault survivors.
"I would say that Greg Abbott's actions at that time were despicable," Davis said, "and that calling out those actions in an ad that tells nothing but the truth is something that Texans deserve to know."
Using rape cases in campaign advertising is a harsh tactic with a long history in American politics, most famously in the notorious "Willie Horton" ads George H.W. Bush's campaign fired against Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. But political analysts warn that it can easily backfire.
"It's kind of interesting to see this kind of very aggressive, very, very hard-hitting ad this early on," said Bob Stein, a Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst. "Usually you save those toward the late dates in the campaign, when you're trying to really win over undecided voters."
With a Rasmussen poll released last week indicating Abbott leading Davis by eight percentage points, Stein suggests the underdog senator is trying to breathe life into a campaign that seems to have generated more interest among national Democrats than among Texas voters.
"Wendy Davis has simply not caught fire," Stein said.