They're as common at campaign stops as colorful banners: hand-held cameras wielded by politicians' opponents to catch them making a stupid mistake.
So how come candidates keep getting tripped up by "trackers" who record their every move?
Trackers have been credited for spoiling campaigns from Virginia to Nevada. And this year, amateur video clips could make the difference in Colorado's hotly contested GOP Senate primary on Tuesday.
Just ask Ken Buck, a rural prosecutor with a strong tea party following whose surging campaign for the GOP nomination recently was tripped up by gaffes that were caught on tape and quickly became online sensations. In one, a Democratic tracker recorded Buck saying, "Will you tell those dumba—-s at the tea party to stop asking questions about birth certificates while I'm on the camera?" He was referring to those doubting President Barack Obama's Hawaii birth certificate.
A camera was rolling when Buck later told a voter to choose him over former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton "because I do not wear high heels." What followed? A television ad by Norton promoting the sexist quip, of course, along with new Norton campaign T-shirts featuring a pink stiletto and the phrase, "The BUCK stops here."
Buck had appeared headed to an upset victory after more than a year campaigning nearly nonstop, courting tea party groups and GOP clubs to lay out his vision to return the Senate seat to Republican hands.
His blunders appear to have boosted the better-funded Norton's campaign. Two polls commissioned by The Denver Post and KUSA-TV — one taken before the video gaffes and one after — showed Norton closing a gap between her and Buck. Norton has seized on Buck's goofs to portray herself as more straightforward.
"Jane Norton is the same Jane Norton whether the cameras are on or off. With Ken Buck, the picture is much less clear," Norton told reporters as she decried Buck's "dumba—-s" remark.
Asked about the role of trackers in political debate, and the fact that Buck's gaffes were caught by the opposing party, Norton said, "There is a tracker mentality, obviously, in this political process."
Buck declined through a spokesman to talk about tracking with The Associated Press. But he grumbled to a talk radio station in early August that he "can talk all day long about important issues" while the press wants to hear about "high heels and other nonsense."
The "tracker mentality," as Norton dismissed it, irks candidates who say splice-and-share video clips usurp more substantive political debate and make candidates less candid. But no one doubts that trackers are here to stay.
Both political parties are angling to expand candidate surveillance. The Democratic National Committee this summer started a website called The Accountability Project and invited amateurs to submit provoking candidate recordings. Republicans say they're informally inviting do-it-yourself tracking, too.
"This is how information moves now," said Kelly Maher, a conservative political consultant who last year took up tracking full time for an independent advocacy group she created called WhoSaidYouSaid.
Voters are now YouTube-watching media consumers, people attracted to short "gotcha" moments instead of long speeches about platforms, said Maher, 27.
"What we have is an entire group of people who are used to processing information on video in less than a minute," said Maher, whose website promotes unflattering video of Democratic campaigns.
Colorado's GOP chairman says candidates simply have to adjust to life under constant surveillance.
"What I tell candidates is, anytime they're in front of a group — anytime, anywhere — they should assume it's something that can be recorded," Dick Wadhams said.
Wadhams should know. He was campaign manager for the poster candidate for tracker collapse — Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia, who saw his re-election campaign (and presidential aspirations) crumble in 2006 when he referred to an Indian-American tracker following him as "macaca," perceived as a racial slur.
A tracker's clip was blamed, too, for this year's primary loss by Nevada Republican Sue Lowden. Lowden appeared to lead the Republican contest to challenge Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid in November until a tape went viral showing Lowden seeming to promote the idea of bartering for health care. Lowden went on to lose the primary to Sharron Angle.
And in Tennessee, Republican state Sen. Ron Ramsey lost in a primary governor's race a month after a tracker caught him on tape wondering whether Islam is a "cult or whatever."
Maher, who carries a low-cost Flip camera to capture Democrats, said politicians try to distance themselves from trackers — but they have no qualms about promoting juicy clips that suggest hypocrisy or ineptitude by their opponents.
Because politicians seldom trip up before traditional press outlets or television-station cameras, she said, trackers fill in the gaps to show how candidates campaign when they aren't aware they're being watched.
"We're looking for those moments where they're unscripted and they tell us what they really think," Maher said. "When you get that, it's just golden."
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