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White House hopefuls digging up the dirt

Opposition research -- material all the presidential campaigns peddle to news organizations, bloggers and others. Sometimes the material — past votes, business deals, conflicting statements from the past — is accurate, others times it's just wrong.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The whispered item about former President Clinton was a screaming headline on the Drudge Report.

On the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Clinton delivered a speech for $100,000 to a Hong Kong organization. The implication was clear — Clinton, husband of the New York senator, had put making money ahead of observing a solemn day.

But there was one problem. Although Clinton did give a speech, it was by satellite from his New York home on Sept. 10. Due to the time difference, the speech was shown in Hong Kong on Sept. 11. On the actual anniversary of the attacks, Clinton participated in a number of observances, all of them unpaid.

The item from a rival presidential campaign was a tidbit of opposition research, material all the campaigns peddle to news organizations, bloggers and others. Sometimes the material — past votes, business deals, conflicting statements from the past — is accurate, others times slightly off the mark or completely wrong.

The campaigns pass the information to reporters, sometimes openly but often secretly, and it’s up to journalists to sort out what is legitimate.

Jason Miner, a communications consultant who was a researcher at the Democratic National Committee for eight years through both of President Bush’s races, said the practice has become more widespread as more information has become available online. He estimated that most presidential campaigns have five to 15 researchers on staff.

“In a presidential campaign, you are vetting someone for the most powerful job in the world,” Miner said. “They should get as thorough of an examination as possible.”

Recent examples
In the past week, there have been several cases:

  • Aides to Republican John McCain distributed a video of a May 2005 news conference in which rival Mitt Romney proclaimed his commitment to upholding abortion rights laws as governor of Massachusetts. A link to the edited video clip was included in a news release titled “MITT VS. FACT. SAY. DO. ANYTHING.” and subtitled “SHIFTING POSITIONS ON ABORTION.” The McCain camp argued that it undercut Romney’s more recent statements opposing abortion rights. Romney pointed to the remainder of the news conference, in which he proclaimed his personal opposition to abortion. The result was Internet buzz and news stories about Romney’s shift on abortion just as he geared up to speak to a national anti-abortion group.
  • Two days later, fellow Republican presidential candidate Sam Brownback recycled information the McCain campaign had already circulated in a fresh attack via news release titled: “Mitt Romney: Proud of Taxpayer-Funded Abortions.”
  • Fred Thompson’s candidate surveys from the 1990s have surfaced online in the months since the former Tennessee senator indicated his interest in entering the race. One questionnaire by Project Vote Smart indicated he supported a woman’s right to abortion in the first three months of pregnancy. Thompson’s aides said a campaign staffer filled that out without the candidate’s knowledge.
  • On Thursday, Democrat Barack Obama’s campaign sent a memo to reporters, demanding that it not be attributed to their campaign, that criticized the Clintons’ financial ties to India. “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab),” the headline said.

The Clinton campaign obtained the document and sent it around to journalists, trying to portray Obama as hypocritical for decrying attack politics while secretly practicing it. The document also opened Obama to criticism from Indian-Americans. He told The Des Moines Register Monday that it was a “screw-up on the part of our research team” that he hadn’t seen and it was “stupid and caustic.”

After the flap, Democrat John Edwards’ campaign tried to make light of the situation and e-mailed a tongue-in-cheek “research” document to reporters with the subject “NOT FOR ATTRIBUTION.” The memo used the lingo and format of opposition documents to report “the hard truth” about Edwards’ “great week.” The problem with the joke was that many reporters used to frequent background papers didn’t get it and mistakenly thought the Edwards camp was taking secrecy to new heights.

Even though they all conduct opposition research, it’s not something the campaigns like to talk about. Advisers to Clinton, Obama and Edwards tried to avoid the question posed during a forum this spring at Harvard University: Is it proper for a campaign to research a rival’s public records and then secretly distribute the unflattering information they find?

Finally, after several other advisers sidestepped the subject, Clinton media consultant Mandy Grunwald flatly acknowledged her campaign has been researching opponents’ public records and sharing the information with reporters. “Every campaign, to my knowledge, has shared thoughts about the others’ records so far in this campaign,” she said. “Everyone here.”