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Eric Greitens says his RINO-hunting ad was meant in humor. How will voters see it?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

U.S. Senate hopeful Eric Greitens ignited a firestorm this week with an online ad encouraging people to go out and hunt so-called RINOs. That's the acronym for Republicans in name only. It's a phrase some people use for Republicans they think are not conservative enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

ERIC GREITENS: Get a RINO hunting permit. There's no bagging limit, no tagging limit, and it doesn't expire until we save our country.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOM)

CHANG: There was condemnation, yes, but there was also attention that the former Missouri governor needs to stand out in a crowded primary. Here's St. Louis Public Radio's Jason Rosenbaum.

JASON ROSENBAUM, BYLINE: Eric Greitens got exactly what he wanted. His U.S. Senate campaign released a web ad on Monday featuring the former governor storming a house with a big gun alongside people dressed as armed military members. Greitens's ad hit a nerve. Facebook removed the video, and Republicans and Democrats slammed the ad as a cheap publicity stunt that appears to condone violence over political disagreements.

But on Tuesday, Greitens bragged about the ad's widespread attention with KCMO Talk Radio's Pete Mundo.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "PETE MUNDO MORNING SHOW")

GREITENS: As we're talking now, less than 24 hours since we released it, we now know that it's had at least 3 1/2 million views.

ROSENBAUM: Greitens is trying to tap into a populist and nationalist edge among Republican primary voters. And Austin Petersen, a conservative talk show host who is neutral in the 21-person GOP primary, says Greitens is masterful at getting attention through traditional and social media channels. Petersen would know. He ran for U.S. Senate in 2018, albeit unsuccessfully.

AUSTIN PETERSEN: That's why Eric Greitens is winning. Because he's winning the information war. He knows what he's doing. You know, he's getting out there, controversy or not. If you remember, I was the guy who gave away an AR-15 in my race. That was the best thing that ever happened. Haters be damned.

ROSENBAUM: Greitens isn't just encountering controversy over viral web videos. He made scores of enemies among both parties before and after he resigned as governor due to scandals involving an extramarital affair and campaign finance controversies. And Greitens's ex-wife said under oath that he was abusive to her and their son - allegations he denies. Greitens's GOP opponents, like Congressman Billy Long, say the ad is in bad taste.

BILLY LONG: If you want to beat RINOs, you beat them at the ballot box. I mean, to say that you're going to go hunting RINOs is beyond the pale, in my opinion.

ROSENBAUM: Some of Greitens's detractors, including departing U.S. Senator Roy Blunt, have suggested that people should stop talking about the video because it's giving Greitens the attention he needs to win an August 2 primary. Democrat Lucas Kunce disagrees with that strategy.

LUCAS KUNCE: We are going after Eric Greitens and reminding everyone, and if you don't talk about how bad it is, you literally give him a free pass. It's like, oh, OK, well, let me put out the next one.

ROSENBAUM: University of Missouri-Saint Louis political science professor Anita Manion says ignoring Greitens's web ad would paper over dark realities about the state of American politics. That's especially the case when a school shooting in Texas is still top of mind, and Democratic and Republican political figures are being threatened.

ANITA MANION: And although I understand the sentiment of not wanting to draw more attention to violent or inappropriate content, I do think that we have to talk about it.

ROSENBAUM: Greitens's campaign strongly disputes the idea that the web ad condones violence, saying in a statement, quote, "If anyone doesn't get the metaphor, they are either lying or dumb." And with Greitens leading in numerous public opinion polls, it's unclear whether the furor over the web ad will cause his opponents to gain ground or solidify his place as frontrunner.

For NPR News, I'm Jason Rosenbaum in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.