In Nevada’s gubernatorial race, Democratic Party candidate Jim Gibson has been hampered by a sonorous personal style that many see as dull. But last week, he livened up that staid image by issuing an animated attack ad lampooning his opponent for once taking a campaign donation from Enron.

Gibson’s ad places him at the forefront of this year’s hot political advertising trend: animated attack ads designed to be spread virally through blogs and e-mail.

In the ad, Gibson’s opponent is shown charging into the lair of a Darth Sidious-like emperor. But instead of slicing up his evil highness with a lightsaber, she happily snatches up a pile of money.

The cartoon shows Gibson’s lighter side and has drawn a surge of media interest.

"This is going to be more and more a common practice," said David Johnson, a political consultant who has worked for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Animated political ads got their start in 2004 when JibJab hit it big with a parody called This Land starring presidential candidates John Kerry and George W. Bush.

JibJab spoofed both parties, but strategists saw the viral spread of the cartoon as a new avenue to voters. Last year, a group opposed to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger turned him into a right-wing, Ernie-like cartoon, strolling down a spoof Sesame Street.

Earlier this year, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum’s camp targeted Democrat Bob Casey Jr. with a satirical puzzle called Where’s Bob Casey that suggests the state treasurer neglects his duties.

And, in a rather perplexing spot, an Indian-American candidate for Ohio attorney general, Subodh Chandra, has created a Simpsons-themed toon (.mov) comparing himself favorably to the show’s Indian shopkeeper, Apu.

"This is a way to poke fun that doesn’t turn off voters," Johnson said. "In 2006, when so many people are taping everything on TV and skipping commercials, this is a way to engage people."

But Gibson’s opponent for Nevada governor, state Sen. Dina Titus, isn’t amused. She feels the cartoon trivializes the race and distorts her record.

"The accent wasn’t very accurate and it’s pretty sexist," she said in her tart-talkin’, Southern-twanged style. "We’re putting up the facts. They’re putting up science fiction."

Consultants doubt any of this will affect the election, except to energize the base, grab a few headlines and raise money. It also creates some suspense about what Gibson’s campaign might do next.

"It’s doubtful these animations reach undecided voters," said Michael Bassik of the Washington, D.C.-based political consulting firm MSHC Partners. "But they can go viral within a confined geographic area and get some notice."

Gibson’s spot was the brainchild of his campaign’s web host, Load, which had made cartoons internally for fun and decided to take a spin at politics.

Since the launch, the ad has been downloaded by more than 14,000 users, said Load’s owner Nick Jones, who says he’s now getting calls from candidates in Pennsylvania asking for his services.

By Steve Friess