WASHINGTON - As a congressional candidate, Gary Boisclair is making good on his promise to go negative.

"This is not pretty," he said of his television ads that started airing in the Twin Cities on Tuesday afternoon, featuring close-up images of aborted fetuses. "It's not intended to make people feel good."

The ads are part of a national campaign backed by longtime abortion opposition leader Randall Terry, the Operation Rescue founder who has run similar ads in Florida, Illinois, Oklahoma and other states.

In the Twin Cities, the 15th-largest media market in the nation, the ads take aim at Minnesota Democrat Keith Ellison, whose Muslim faith is also a target for Boisclair.

"Islam has a long history of shedding blood," said Boisclair, a native of Buffalo, Minn., who now lives in West Virginia, where he describes himself as a Christian missionary.

Ellison's campaign denounced the ads, which were scheduled to run on all the major networks in the Twin Cities, including during NBC's 4 p.m. Olympic news time slot on KARE, Channel 11.

"Mr. Boisclair's television ads are clearly designed to divide Minnesotans and spread fear," Ellison campaign manager Will Hailer said. "With his official residence listed in West Virginia, it's not surprising that Mr. Boisclair's views are out of touch with Minnesota values. Conversely, Representative Ellison is a proud advocate for inclusion, dialogue and a woman's right to access comprehensive reproductive health care."

Terry, who gained national fame for blocking abortion clinics across the country, said Tuesday that the ads are part of an effort to "shake the consciences of American voters" and raise abortion as an issue in the presidential campaign.

Terry also echoed U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann's allegations connecting Ellison and the Obama administration to the Muslim Brotherhood, citing that as a basis for the Boisclair ads depicting Islam as a threat to Christians. Although Islam teaches that abortion is wrong, Terry said, "I would rather live in a free country that killed its babies than in an Islamic country that did not."

Candidacy tied to issue

Boisclair, nephew of the late Twin Cities high-rise developer Robert Boisclair, is not shy about seeking attention for his cause, which is using the legal framework of a long-shot congressional campaign to secure uncensored air time for its graphic images of abortion.

While some TV stations have opposed such ads in the past, they have little choice but to run them. "Unless it's clearly obscene, they're pretty much obligated to take the ads," said David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University who specializes in election law. "They're political ads."

The strategy, pioneered in a District of Columbia race in 2010, represents a reversal of the recent practice where special interest groups run thinly disguised "issue ads" to help candidates they support. In this case, Schultz said, the candidacy appears to be a pretext for raising an issue.

The D.C. effort was backed by the Society for Truth and Justice, another Terry group that has run various presidential and congressional campaigns, including one in Ohio against Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who was deemed an insufficiently strong foe of abortion rights.

Campaigns in other states

Terry has run similar ads in West Virginia, Kentucky and Nebraska, where he is a presidential candidate. He also has a congressional campaign in Florida, which contributed $2,000 to Boisclair.

Altogether, Terry said, the group has raised about $250,000 for about nine campaigns nationwide. Boisclair said he has raised about $6,500 for his congressional campaign, which depicts Ellison as a supporter of abortion, sharia law and the Qur'an, the central religious text of Islam. Nearly all the money has gone into the ads, one of which describes the Qur'an as a book that "undermines our Constitution and says you should be killed."

Boisclair, 44, acknowledged he maintains only a post office box in Minneapolis and has little hope of getting past next week's DFL primary. He said federal law would require him to establish residence in the state only if he makes it to the general election. "It's a long-term plan," he said of his congressional campaign, which he runs from his home in Romney, W. Va. "I have to begin somewhere."

Why run as a Democrat? "Democrats proudly use the line that they fight for the little guy," he said. "Well, why not follow through?"

But Boisclair expects to face tougher questions than that in the Twin Cities. He has scheduled a news conference at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis on Wednesday to "take questions regarding complaints, accusations, and anger" over his campaign ads.

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.