WASHINGTON - A national strategy by anti-abortion activists to oppose incumbent candidates nationwide is surfacing in Minnesota, where a political unknown backed by a national group is challenging U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison in the DFL primary.

Gary Boisclair is not an obvious choice to knock off a three-term DFLer. Although he grew up in Buffalo, Minn., Boisclair hasn't lived in the state since 2003. The novice candidate calls himself a Tea Party activist and is a strong abortion opponent running in one of the state's more liberal districts.

What Boisclair does have is the backing of Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, which gained national fame for blocking abortion clinics across the country. Terry has a new organization now and a new strategy: Pick candidates for federal office and use their campaigns to air searingly graphic images of abortions in an attempt to shock Americans into opposing the practice. Terry is a candidate for president and has said he plans to run an ad during the 2012 Super Bowl.

Terry admits the ads are offensive, and says that's the point.

"These images, by definition, are appalling, and they demand a response from the human soul," Terry said in an interview. "We are getting a response -- obviously, people are livid -- and then people will recognize this is a grotesque injustice."

Ellison declined to address Boisclair's candidacy or tactics but emphasized in a statement his support of abortion rights. "I have always been a strong supporter of a woman's right to choose," Ellison said. "Women's rights and access to affordable health care are a high priority to me and to thousands of women and their families currently living in Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District."

Terry's group, the Society for Truth and Justice, aired ads in the 2010 election cycle in Washington, D.C. Terry said he has five candidates nationwide and hopes to have up to a dozen -- Democrats and Republicans.

Do they stand any chance of winning? "That's not the point," Terry said.

Terry says he plans to have a six-figure bankroll to spread among candidates. "If we spend $150,000 or $250,000 collectively on hard-hitting TV ads, we can begin to drive the agenda."

David Schultz, a law professor at Hamline University who specializes in election law, said television stations may be powerless to stop the onslaught.

A 1996 appellate ruling in the District of Columbia found such ads, while disturbing, were not indecent and could not be blocked. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) has said stations must give candidates equal access to airtime if they adhere to basic prohibitions against obscenity and indecency.

"What stations were trying to say was these ads just cross the line," Schultz said. "The court came in and said these may be graphic, they may be really horrible, but you don't have the authority to be able to limit these."

Missy Smith, a congressional candidate in the District of Columbia who ran anti-abortion ads in 2010, raised about $60,000 for her efforts, according to FEC reports. She aired the ads during the 5 p.m. network news broadcasts and during such shows as "Oprah," "Saturday Night Live" and "The Tonight Show," according to the Terry group's website. She also was a Terry recruit.

'Intense activism'

Boisclair was an elementary teacher in Edina from 1998 to 2003. He then moved to Hawaii, where he worked as a youth minister until 2009, according to his candidate biography.

He then joined Terry's Society for Truth and Justice, which he described as "intense activism" against abortion. During Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings last year, Boisclair donned a chicken suit to protest her nomination.

Boisclair says his abortion views are conservative, but he's a Democrat because "Democrats know how to fight for the little guy, and I'm fighting for the littlest guy."

His campaign website features ads depicting images of bloodied, dismembered fetuses that also were employed in TV ads aired by Smith.

Boisclair has declared his candidacy, but has not yet filed with the FEC. He said he will do so once he hits his $5,000 fundraising threshold. According to the Minnesota secretary of state's office, the only legal residential requirement for congressional races is that candidates must live in the state by Election Day.

Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723 Twitter: @StribHerb