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Campaign trackers force politicians to watch their words

- Associated Press - Sunday, December 16, 2012

AUGUSTA, Maine — As Maine's governor addressed the newly elected Legislature early this month, his frustration with trackers, the video-camera-toting operatives who follow around politicians, boiled over into a brief diatribe that set off the session to a sour start.

In a setting usually reserved for rhetoric about bipartisanship and cooperation, Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, sarcastically thanked Democrats for hiring "my own paparazzi," surprising some legislators and outraging others.

Trackers have become staples of American elections over the past few years, and politicians have been wrestling with this reality. Their advisers issue constant warnings for them to watch what they say, mindful of the fallout that an inartful comment caught on video can bring. But now, as in the case of Mr. LePage, who doesn't face re-election for two more years, these trackers are turning up even when it's not an election year to catch candidates who slips verbally, in hopes of using the flub against them in the future.

"It's like forcing a turnover in the preseason and being able to use it in the postseason," said John Rowley, a Democratic consultant based in Nashville, Tenn.

Trackers are hired by both major political parties, candidates, political action committees and now so-called super PACs, said Dale Emmons, president of the American Association of Political Consultants, a bipartisan group based in Virginia. "It's a very serious enterprise."

Tracking also can be a strong hedge against misstatements in political ads that pare down the candidate's recorded comments and reshape them to mislead voters. That practice has forced parties and campaigns in many cases to track their own candidates to make sure that remarks can be explained with their full context.

"It's less about 'gotcha' and more about the credibility of the political ads," Mr. Rowley said.

Year-round tracking of elected officials who are likely to become candidates, well outside campaign season, is a growing trend, said Chris Harris, spokesman for American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super PAC that specializes in opposition research and tracking.

Tracking helps to hold those officials accountable if they make contradictory public statements, said Mr. Harris. "Candidates have come to understand the value of tracking."

Trackers can take many forms and can have huge impact. Secret recordings of Mitt Romney at a private fundraiser this year, later made public by Mother Jones magazine, included his statement that 47 percent of all Americans "believe they are victims" entitled to extensive government support.

"Who doesn't have a phone that records video and takes photos? Anyone can be a tracker," said national Republican consultant Luke Marchant. "Candidates and elected officials need to assume that they are being recorded and that they will be held accountable for what they say. A gaffe today is a headline tomorrow."

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