Bob Riley and B.B. Comer had run a relatively polite campaign in the Republican runoff for the 3rd District Congressional seat - until this week.
Now Comer is questioning Riley's honesty and accusing the Ashland businessman of threatening his family. Riley denies issuing any threat, but says he may respond with negative attacks on Comer.
It began Tuesday with the Comer campaign running a television ad questioning Riley's honesty. The 30-second spot, which appeared on stations in Anniston, Birmingham and Columbus, Ga., shows Riley at a Feb. 13 candidate's forum saying he had "never run for office before." The ad then points out that Riley served on the Ashland City Council from 1972-1976 and ran for mayor and lost in 1976.
Riley, who led in the June 4 primary, called Comer's home from Washington at about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday and asked Comer to stop running the ad, both candidates said. Comer, an investment adviser from Sylacauga, said Riley threatened to respond with negative ads that would hurt Comer and his family.
"Never did I think an opponent, particularly a fellow Republican, would make veiled threats against my wife and children," Comer said at a news conference Wednesday at WJSU-TV 40 in Anniston. "Riley said he has gotten to know my children and did not want to have to use material that would be hurtful to them. I believe this sort of threat is completely out of line."
Riley said he was simply trying to head off a negative campaign in the final days of the runoff. His concern for Comer's family was genuine, he said, and not meant as a threat.
"I have been taught that if you have a problem with someone you talk it out," Riley said. "It was not adversarial. He ended it by saying, 'God bless you and your family.' "
Riley said he has never intentionally misled anyone about his political experience. He "mis-spoke" at the Auburn forum, he said.
"It happened four months ago," Riley said. "I have done everything humanly possible to correct it. I have dealt with it in February. I have dealt with it in March. I have dealt with it in April. Then five days out, he starts running an ad."
Riley said he believes the ad is a desperate act by an opponent who is "woefully behind in this runoff." He said Comer is violating an earlier pledge that Comer made and asked other GOP candidates to sign to refrain from negative campaigning.
Steve Schmidt, Comer's campaign manager, said the ad is not negative but indicates a difference between what Riley said and the truth.
"Truthfulness counts," Schmidt said. "There is something fundamentally wrong when a candidate does not tell the voters the truth. This campaign does not apologize for this ad."
Riley and Comer led their five opponents in the June 4 primary with Riley capturing 39 percent of the vote and Comer winning 20 percent.
The exchanges between the two campaigns did not stop with Comer's new TV ad. Riley's campaign issued a release - boldly stamped "Alert!" - accusing Rex Elsass, who works for the company that produces Comer's television commercials, of being "one of the dirtiest tricksters in politics."
The release said Elsass had been "fired" from Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bernadine Healy's campaign in Ohio four years ago after it was discovered that a member of the campaign staff stole a list of Republican Party donors and intentionally disrupted Democratic rallies.
Elsass said he was not "fired," but resigned from Healy's campaign. He said his only involvement with Comer's campaign is to produce TV ads and buy time for them to run on stations.
"I am not the boogie man," Elsass said. "I do not have horns and a tail."
Comer also began running a radio advertisement about Riley's phone call and about Riley campaign literature that shows Bob Dole giving Riley the thumbs up. Comer's campaign says it wrongfully gives the impression that Dole endorsed Riley when no such endorsement has been made.
Riley said all the literature says is that Dole is giving Riley the "thumbs up," which is what Dole is doing in the picture.
Riley said he would sit down with his family today and decide how to respond to Comer's ads. At first, he said, he was ready to "go negative," but now he is not so sure.
"We are going to have to respond," he said. "People told me that every time the ads run and we don't respond that it hurts me."
TV camera frames candidate Comer as he talks to son Braxton before press conference.