The Senate race in Tennessee, already one of the most bitter and potentially decisive battles in the mid-term election campaign, has been thrown into new turmoil by a race-tinged Republican attack advertisement against the Democrat bidding to become the first black Senator from the US south since Reconstruction.
The ad, which bears the specific imprimatur of the Republican National Committee, has now been pulled - but not before a firestorm of criticism that it was a deliberate effort in a predominantly white state to kindle unease about inter-racial dating, and thus turn opinion against Harold Ford, the Democratic candidate.
The 30-second spot shows a variety of people commenting sarcastically on Mr Ford's stance on gun ownership, taxes and terrorism. So far, nothing very unusual, in a national campaign in which the advertising has been dirty even by America's hardened standards of negativity. But then comes the segment which has stirred such controversy.
"I met Harold at the Playboy party" coos an attractive and scantily dressed blonde, referring to Mr Ford's attendance (along with some 3,000 others) at a party hosted by the mens' magazine during the 2005 Superbowl festivities in Jacksonville, Florida. The ad ends with a final clip of the white woman, winking at the camera and saying, "Harold, call me."
On the face of it, not especially incendiary, given that Mr Ford is single, only 36 years old, and by any reckoning handsome. But in a part of the country where old racial stereotypes live on, and have been exploited in years past by white candidates facing African-American opponents, it has proved explosive.
Critics say the ad spot is even more blatant than those run in 1996 by the arch-conservative white supremacist Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina to defeat a strong challenge by Harvey Gantt, the black then Mayor of Charlotte. Back in 1988, Republicans wheeled out the now infamous " Willie Horton" ads, featuring a paroled black murderer, to attack that year's Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis for being soft on crime.
Mr Ford himself has dismissed the ad as an act of desperation by Bob Corker, his Republican opponent for the seat being vacated by Bill Frist, the outgoing Senate majority leader who is mulling a 2008 run for the White House. "You know your opponent is scared when his main opposition against you is "My opponent likes girls." Yesterday William Cohen, former Defence Secretary and Republican Senator, condemned the ad as "a very serious appeal to racist sentiment". But party spokesmen insisted the ad was taken off the air not because of the controversy but because it had "run its course." In any case it now has a life of its own, ensured of notoriety as news in its own right.
The Tennessee contest, along with those in Virginia and Missouri, is one of three in previously Republican-held seats in the "northern South" that will determine control of the Senate. To make the net gain of six they need for a majority, the Democrats will have to win at least two of them. All three are currently neck and neck. The latest polls show Mr Corker has regained a narrow lead of three or four points, but well within the statistical margin of error.
Mr Ford, who comes from a prominent political family, has fought a skilful campaign, playing down his relatively liberal voting record in Washington, where he has been a Congressman for the Memphis district since 1996. In a socially conservative state, he promises voters that "I will never take away your Bible or your gun".
* US religious conservatives could be energised by a New Jersey Supreme Court decision giving gay couples the same rights as married heterosexuals. It may tilt the balance for Republicans in close races in the 7 November congressional elections, analysts and activists say.
"The Iraq issue had taken away from the social issues religious conservatives wanted to focus on," said Scott Keeter, at the PEW Research Centre.Reuse content