Chris Kromm's extensive backgrounder Friday on Scott Howell, Karl Rove protégé, mastermind behind the Kerry swift boat ads and attacks on Max Cleland in Georgia, and now vicious attack ads against Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, was quite revealing. Since then, the web of trickery and deceit in Tennessee has widened and become even more entangled.

The New York Times reported on Friday that Terry Nelson was hired by the Republican National Committee to oversee "independent expenditures" and that Nelson hired Howell to produce the Ford attack ad:

No Republicans wanted to take credit. When the identity of the producer, Scott Howell, emerged, Democrats quickly pounced on his history of bare-knuckled tactics and close relationship with Karl Rove as evidence of a familiar Republican approach.

And the incident quickly set off a wave of denials and denunciations from Republican officials, including the national party chairman and Senator John McCain of Arizona, who has hired Terry Nelson, another consultant affiliated with the spot.

[..]

Mr. Howell, who once worked for Mr. Rove's direct-mail business in Texas, was hired by Mr. Nelson, who was political director of the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004. Mr. Nelson was in turn hired by Ken Mehlman, the former Bush-Cheney campaign manager and White House political director who is now chairman of the Republican National Committee, to oversee the so-called independent expenditure operations.

Late Friday afternoon, the Huffington Post reported:

Huffington Post has learned that Terry Nelson, a second producer of the racist Corker ad and a consultant to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Wal-Mart, is to be fired by Wal-Mart for his role in producing the ad. Developing...

Both Wal-Mart and Nelson denied it, but late Friday evening the reports were confirmed, and on Saturday the New York Times reported:

Under pressure from black leaders and union groups, Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, said last night that it had cut ties with a prominent Republican strategist who helped create the provocative advertisement.

The strategist, Terry Nelson, was hired by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in 2005 to help burnish its image after a wave of attacks from organized labor and liberal groups.

Nelson has also been linked to the DeLay money laundering scandal, and was named in the indictment but not charged. Nelson is also involved in the New Hampshire phone-jamming incident, for which one GOP operative has already been convicted. Nelson is set to testify in a civil case involving the matter:

One of Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain's top political strategists is likely to be among those who will face grilling soon from lawyers for New Hampshire Democrats, thanks to a judge's ruling Thursday in a civil case involving a Republican plot in that state to jam Democrats' get-out-the-vote phone lines on Nov. 5, 2002.

Terry Nelson, a senior adviser to McCain's Straight Talk America political action committee, was the national political director for the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign.

But before that, Nelson served as deputy chief of staff and executive director of political operations at the National Republican Committee, a role in which he helped craft the GOP takeover of the Senate in 2002. That included a narrow victory in the 2002 race for a senate seat from New Hampshire by then-Republican House member John Sununu over then-Gov. Jean Shaheen, a Democrat.

In that job, Nelson was a supervisor to GOP official James Tobin. In December, Tobin was convicted of felony telephone-harassment charges related to his involvement in the New Hampshire phone jamming.

Although they write the checks to fund them, Ken Mehlman and the Republican National Committee continue to deny that they have any control over these ads while at the same time they continue to defend them. In response, the DNC asks:

"Why is it that Republican leaders continue to defend the tactics of the GOP's southern strategy?" asked DNC Communications Director Karen Finney. "Today Ken Mehlman not only refused to take responsibility for this despicable RNC ad, he continued to defend it. The truth is there is no reason Mehlman couldn't have called Terry Nelson, and no reason he couldn't have immediately denounced the ad publicly. Even Wal-mart fired Terry Nelson for his role in making this ad.

But big-time political consultants hired by the Republican National Committee are not the only players in the Southern Strategy.

Over the weekend, reports were popping up on a few Tennessee blogs that a wave of "push poll" calls was making its way across the state. The Knoxville News Sentinel reports today:

Several people receiving the calls characterized them as "push polling," a tactic in which a call begins as if a poll is being conducted and then shifts mostly to providing negative information about a candidate.

Among those getting the call was Georgiana Vines, News Sentinel political columnist.

The recorded call suggests to people who indicate they favor Ford or are undecided that the Democratic candidate favors higher takes and "foreign terrorists having the same rights as American citizens."

According to the article, the calls directed voters to a website run by Common Sense Tennessee. The News Sentinel was not able to find much information on the group, but believes it is linked to a similar group in Ohio. The article notes:

No one with either the Tennessee or Ohio organization could be reached for comment. Ohio media outlets have reported controversies over the Ohio organization concealing the identity of those donating $1.5 million to the group, which is headed by Procter & Gamble executive Nathan Estruth of Cincinnati.

The Ohio group used the money to run attack ads against Democratic candidate for governor Ted Strickland, who is opposing Republican J. Kenneth Blackwell, the controversial Secretary of State who runs Ohio elections.

The Common Sense Tennessee website lists "John Lind" as the "treasurer." If it is the same John Lind, he's the founder of the Presidential Prayer Team, which is running a "Pray the Vote" campaign for the 2006 elections. The campaign talks about "wicked leaders" and says:

Which type of leaders will we have here in America? The righteous kind we hope, but that's only going to be realized if God's people pray for the upcoming elections. This is not a political effort, but rather a spiritual one, as we encourage prayer for Godly leaders to be elected.

The group is also selling an exclusive $60 "Pray the Vote Prayer Package":

As we near Election Day on November 7, 2006, you have the opportunity from your pulpit on November 5th, or with your group to encourage your people to pray for the elections, then to vote in them. Present your churchgoers or group members with the message that it's critical we pray for righteous leaders to be elected, even as we perform our civic duty to vote for them. Use one of our two Pray the Vote Sermons plus our inspirational Pray The Vote Video along with the numerous other resources available to you in our church Group Prayer Package.

But wait there's more. There are unconfirmed reports making the Tennessee blog rounds that voters are getting mailers and phone calls saying things like "only property owners are allowed to vote," "if you voted in the primary you don't need to vote again because your vote will carry over," and "if you have any outstanding traffic tickets you can be arrested on the spot if you show up to vote." It's not clear who is behind this if it is even happening. But at this point nothing would come as a surprise.

This is as nasty a campaign as we can remember in recent Tennessee history and we still have a week to go. Everyone agrees it has no place in politics but nobody seems to know what to do about it. McCain-Feingold does not seem to have made things much better, and with all the exceptions, exclusions, and loopholes may have even made things worse. The real concern is that voters will be turned off by all of this and stay home. Regardless of which party you support and who wins or loses, that would be the worst outcome.