Oregon Senate Candidate Aims at Voters' Funny Bone With Hook Hand, Short Size

So a U.S. Senate candidate with a metal hook for a left hand walks into a bar.

The candidate, Steve Novick, has bellied up next to a voter and the two talk about politics. The other guy struggles to twist off a beer cap. Novick coolly reaches over, grabs the bottle and deftly uses his metal hook to pop it open, telling the other man: "We can't afford just politics as usual."

It's a political ad unlike any other this season, and the video has become a hit on YouTube.

Novick, who was born with multiple disabilities, is going right for the funny bone in his bid to challenge a Republican incumbent.

His second TV ad, which spoofs the old TV game show "To Tell the Truth," plays on his stature — he's only 4-foot-9.

"I'm Steve Novick," intones an evenly tanned, perfectly coifed gentleman in a natty suit. "And I'll stand up for everybody, not just the richest 1 percent."

Then the camera pivots down, way down.

"Actually," Novick says, "I'm the real Steve Novick. I don't look like the typical politician, but I won't act like one, either. I will fight for the little guy."

Novick, 44, is seeking the Democratic nomination to take on Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith, who, like the other man in the second commercial, is tall and good-looking.

Unfortunately for Novick, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has chosen to back Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley in the May 20 primary, and has already directed nearly $100,000 to his campaign.

What little polling has been done in the Democratic race showed the two candidates were virtually tied as of last month. Most people surveyed said they were undecided.

Novick, a Portland lawyer, hopes the ads draw attention to his personal story of overcoming disabilities. Besides his left hand, he is missing one of the two major bones between the knee and foot in both legs, giving him an uneven gait.

He graduated at age 18 from the University of Oregon and later was the youngest member of Harvard Law School's Class of 1984.

As a U.S. Justice Department lawyer, he battled polluters before returning to Oregon to fight against anti-tax and anti-union initiatives.

Both of Novick's campaign ads were produced by a Milwaukee firm that helped Russ Feingold win a Wisconsin Senate seat in 1992 by contrasting the little-known challenger's modest home with the fancier home of his well-heeled opponent.

"It's nothing to shy away from and nothing to hide," said Neal Bardele, a partner with Eichenbaum & Associates. "He is a very confident man, a very intelligent man. One of our objectives is to get people to know him, and to know he is not a traditional politician."

In another YouTube video, Novick supporters can be seen wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Hooked on Novick," showing tiny metal hooks on the letters.

But humor has to be delicately applied. Overuse it, and politicians can risk falling flat, as Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd did in a widely panned TV ad joking about his mane of white hair that ran in Iowa last fall.

Rudy Giuliani drew groans for a holiday commercial in which he schmoozed with Santa while wearing a Rudolph's nose-red sweater vest. Hillary Clinton was lampooned for a Christmas ad in which she was seen wrapping "presents" to give to the country, marked with tags reading "universal health care" and "bring the troops home."

Voters can also be skittish about candidates who run funny ads in a country that's perpetually on orange terrorism alert. That's one reason why strategists for comedian Al Franken kept a lid on laugh-out-loud material in his opening round of TV ads for the Minnesota Senate race.

"Al is taking this campaign seriously, and if he uses humor, it will only be in the service of talking about the very serious reasons he is running for the Senate," Franken spokesman Andy Barr said.

In Oregon, the race between Merkley and Novick has been civil. Merkley even made his own attempt at humor. A few weeks ago, he walked away from a rollover car crash with just a bump on his head.

In a video released by his campaign, Merkley is shown dangling upside-down in a rolled-over car. He says into his cell phone: "We just flipped the car. It's just like the Bush economy. It's gone belly up."