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Join Date: Apr 2002
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Is ths a smoke screen?
Opposition research seen as key by presidential rivals
By Glen Johnson, Globe Staff, 6/8/2003
WASHINGTON -- The life-size photograph of George W. Bush hanging in the lobby of the Republican National Committee headquarters conveys the image that the party wants to perpetuate: their man standing in the White House. Some of the crucial work that needs to be done to keep him there is being done in the basement and a first-floor office just beyond the security door.
Three televisions in a basement room constantly record C-Span and television news programs, preserving almost everything said in public by the Democratic candidates for president. On the first floor is the research department, where 15 people -- many of them baby-faced computer whizzes -- sit in cubicles, scanning newspapers, magazines, the Internet, and online databases.
Their mission is to build a file on each of President Bush's nine potential opponents.
Opposition research, a basic but usually concealed chore of political campaigns, seems to be more extensive and more open during the current presidential race mainly because of the large size of the Democratic field and the absence of a clear front-runner. Besides stealthily passing tips to reporters, Republican researchers have been sending out e-mails and posting their findings on the Republican National Committee's website. The negative attention has extended even to Democrats who have raised little money and drawn little support, such as Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and former Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun.
The Republicans are not the only ones keeping tabs on the Democratic candidates; the Democrats are building files on one another as well as on Bush.
Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts is paying $67,000 annually from his campaign money to Michael Gehrke, a former White House research director who knows the senator's record inside and out, as well as his opponents'. When someone attacks or misspeaks, Gehrke and his top deputy, Anne Davis, go to their computers and find information defending Kerry or challenging his opponents.
Most of Kerry's rivals for the Democrat nomination also have a research director on their campaign staff, a less colorful term than the moniker favored by Karl Rove, senior counselor to the president and the White House's chief political tactician.
He calls the Republican committee's research staff ''the oppo dudes.'' One of his standard questions is, ''Have you run that by the oppo dudes?''
Jim Dyke, the Republicans' communications director, said of the research team's efforts: ''I don't think it needs to be secret. `Research' used to be considered some black-bag operation; today, it's not like we're making this stuff up. We're just comparing what they've said and done with what they're saying and doing. They should just see us as a tool for getting their own record out. You'd think they'd appreciate that.'' Dyke said the party does not discriminate among the Democratic candidates, even though some are more prominent than others. ''To the extent that a record exists, it has been examined,'' he said, flashing a grin.
Democrats do not believe Dyke's motives are altruistic, although they cite similar purposes in justifying their involvement in ''oppo research.''
''A large part of presidential campaigns is examining the records of those who are running, whether by the campaigns, the media, or the voter,'' said Erik Smith, campaign spokesman for Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri.
Jennifer Palmieri, spokeswoman for the campaign of Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, said: ''It's a responsible thing to do, to research your record and those of the other candidates. . . . Ultimately, the most important research you do is to anticipate any attack that's coming your way and get ahead of that.''
The extent of the Republican committee's research operation has been evident in the campaign. When each of the nine Democratic candidates filed papers to run for president, Dyke's office sent out an e-mail -- prepared largely by the research staff -- that questioned their record.
''Who is Al Sharpton?'' said the one about the New York civil rights activist. The phraseology mimicked the facetious headline often placed over columns on the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, a conservative space relished in the Republican headquarters nearly as much as Fox News, which airs on television screens throughout the building.
Answering its own question, the committee said, ''A Liberal Democrat Out of Touch With America,'' before documenting Sharpton's statements against tax cuts, welfare reform, and the death penalty.
On another occasion, the party didn't describe what it thought about a Democratic proposal. It merely served as a messenger, making sure reporters heard what one Democrat had said about his rival's proposal.
''DR. DEAN DIAGNOSES DICK GEPHARDT'S BIG GOVERNMENT-RUN HEALTH CARE PLAN,'' said the headline over a statement recapping an analysis of Gephardt's health care plan by Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who is a doctor by training.
Each week, the research department also sends out a report tallying the number of House and Senate votes the Democrats are missing as they campaign across the country.
The Republican researchers clearly relish their work. Over one desk in their office hangs a poster from the Dean campaign, whose slogan is ''The Doctor Is In.'' The workers have altered it to read, ''The Doctor Is Out.'' Underneath sits a doll of the sage of the ''Star Wars'' movies, Yoda. The figurine has a cigarette in its hand, along with a sign reading, ''Vermont's Yoda.'' A bumper sticker on a nearby filing cabinet mocks the 2000 Gore-Lieberman Democratic ticket: ''Sore Loserman,'' it reads. On another wall hangs a portrait of Bush with a voice balloon taped near the mouth. It projects the president as saying, ''Research keeps the White House running -- Rock On!''
The Democrats have been harsh on one another as well.
When Dean speculated recently that the United States may not always have the world's preeminent military, it wasn't long before details about his military record circulated within the political media. Unlike contemporaries such as Kerry, who fought in Vietnam, Dean did not serve in the armed forces because he received a medical deferment for a bad back. But shortly thereafter, he spent a winter skiing in Aspen, Colo. Last year Dean told an Aspen newspaper, ''It was a great time to be a kid and do something relatively fun.''
When Kerry recently unveiled a plan to promote citizenship among Americans, reporters quickly learned that Edwards already had proposed or filed legislation for two components in the Kerry plan, thanks to an e-mail that cited news articles last year about the bill and idea.
And when Gephardt's health care plan became the focus of the Democrats' first formal debate on May 3 in South Carolina, the oppo teams went to work real-time. Within minutes, volunteers from various campaigns began racing through the media filing center, distributing press releases documenting criticism of the plan or bolstering Gephardt's rebuttals.
At another point in the debate, Gephardt implored the Democrats to be bold. ''We cannot be Bush-lite,'' he said. Within 40 minutes of the debate's conclusion, Dean's campaign staff e-mailed a press release citing five interviews since January where Dean had used the phrase ''Bush-lite.''
''Representative Dick Gephardt has recently caught on to a surefire winning message -- the message of Governor Howard Dean, M.D.,'' the release said.
Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, said the debate performance was atypical for his staff. It does not have a formal research director, in part because it remains a shoestring operation.
''It's clear that the better-funded campaigns have much more staffers who are dedicated to oppo and dishing on their opponents,'' Trippi said. ''I'm not trying to say we're much better people. It's not that. We just can't blow dough trying to figure out where John Kerry flip-flopped on a vote.''
Trippi said the use of opposition research contains both challenges for the media and risks for a campaign. For reporters, the issue is how much information they can ethically accept without revealing the source. The standard varies because much of the information is already in the public domain, although in many cases the campaigns have spent more time than news organizations searching for it.
For campaigns, the 1988 presidential race serves as a reminder of the risks of oppo research. John Sasso, then campaign manager for Democratic candidate Michael S. Dukakis of Massachusetts, and Paul Tully, the campaign's political director, were fired after leaking a videotape to reporters highlighting similarities in a speech delivered by former Delaware senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., a rival for the nomination, and a previous speech by British politician Neil Kinnock.
''It destroyed Joe Biden's candidacy, but it really had a devastating effect on the Dukakis campaign,'' Trippi said. ''This year people have strong operations and they're dishing effectively, but only because they have been getting away without their fingerprints.''
Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.
I think it is a smoke screen.
The Republicans have already abused the Patiot Act once that we know
Richard Nixon's wet dream has come true.