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Dirt-diggers descend on Bush country

Jason Stanford, a longtime Texas politico, has suddenly become a hot commodity for visiting reporters. The reason: He once worked for the reelection campaign of former Gov. Ann Richards, and his job was to find every skeleton in the closet of her Republican challenger, George W. Bush.

Now that Mr. Bush is running for president, Mr. Stanford's findings have taken on a sudden ... relevance. While Stanford has long since turned his sights elsewhere, a host of investigative reporters, political activists, and amateurs are just getting started.

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All the sleuthing - which is already making Bush a bit uncomfortable - is a sign of how integral candidate research has become in an era of negative political campaigning.

Pundits may rail against negativity and smears, but defenders of this dark science say opposition research is as American as apple pie - albeit laced with arsenic. For better or worse, candidate research is here to stay, and researchers today have more technological tools and, in some cases, more money with which to pursue their quarry.

"There are so many researchers in this town, they're stumbling over each other," says Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Quorum Report, an Austin political newsletter.

But if the researchers themselves are ubiquitous, their profession is still poorly understood. Their work is the cornerstone for every attack ad of every political race in the country, from the White House to City Hall. If a lawmaker voted for a tax increase but failed to pay his own taxes, a researcher will find it out. If a candidate talked about "traditional family values" in public but was a deadbeat parent in private, a researcher might find that out too.

It can be an unpleasant - and spooky - business. Few freelance researchers will reveal whom they are working for or against, and some simply avoid the press. One researcher, contacted for this report, said: "Off the record, I ran a check on your past stories before deciding to call you back."

'Consumer Report' of politics

But those who practice opposition research say it isn't a cloak-and-dagger world; it's a necessary part of American democracy. "It's the 'Consumer Report' of politics," says Stanford. "No one gets upset when a consumer reporter tells them that their favorite restaurant has a problem with rodent infestation. They just say, 'thanks,' and go someplace else."

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Indeed, opposition research - and dirt-digging - has a time-honored place in the American democratic process.

"Opposition research has been around in some form since the early 1800s," says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. Grover Cleveland was forced by his opponents to admit publicly that he had fathered a child out of wedlock, for instance, and Thomas Jefferson was called a lecherous fornicator, he adds, "perhaps with some justification."

The difference in today's political environment is that the Watergate scandal has embittered the two main parties and whetted the appetites of investigative journalists everywhere. In addition, Dr. Buchanan says, television has magnified these negative charges for the American voting public.

What this means for front-runners like Bush or Vice President Al Gore is that every mistake or peccadillo is fair game. And if the sheer number of researchers on the streets of Austin and in Bush's longtime hometown of Midland are any guide, the 2000 presidential campaign has the portent of being one long catfight.

In an office building under the shadow of the pink dome of the state Capitol, Republican consultant Todd Smith has what may be the ultimate weapon of Texas politics: It's a computer database of every vote cast by every Texas legislator for the past 10 years. It's a tool he uses often against elected Democrats in a state that is fast turning Republican.

"Hypocrisy is the biggest sin in politics," says Mr. Smith, as his associate, Jody Withers, clicks on a lawmaker's name, then compiles a list of his "worst votes." "It goes to the question of whether that person is qualified to make decisions that affect people's lives."

"If I was working opposition research against Governor Bush," says Smith, adding quickly that he is supportive of the Bush campaign, "I'd go look at all the bills that he signed that wouldn't be considered conservative."

And he wouldn't shy away from the character issue. "Bush brought it up himself," says Smith, with a sigh. "He said, 'I will not only uphold the law of the land, but the dignity of the office.' He's made character an issue. That makes hypocrisy an issue."

So far, allegations about Bush's character or alleged past misdeeds have had little effect on his poll ratings. Even so, the press appears to be going over his past acts with a fine-toothed comb, or a high-powered computer.

Craig Varoga, a political consultant from Houston who has worked on numerous Democratic campaigns, says everything is fair in a campaign, but that these days, voters demand documentation behind every charge.

Let someone else do the digging

With 15 months of the campaign to go, there's plenty of time to search out and document an opponent's past - all within the bounds of the law, of course.

"We will look into our opponent's issues and stances in order to provide a contrast of where we stand," says Roger Salazar, spokesman for the Gore 2000 campaign. "We're not going to get into the personal aspects of research."

Ditto, says the Forbes campaign. "We only do public records research, such as press releases that are public information," says Julianna Glover-Weiss, spokeswoman for the Forbes 2000 campaign.

This is not just public-relations mendacity. Longtime opposition researchers say that personal attacks are considered too hot for a political campaign to handle, because American voters tend to look askance at personal attacks on politicians. The long, torrid Lewinsky affair, for example, not only failed to unseat President Clinton but backfired on the Republicans who launched it.

Chuck McDonald, who ran Ann Richards's gubernatorial campaigns in 1990 and '94, has been on both the giving and receiving ends of candidate research. He ran ads charging that the Republican candidate of 1990, Clayton Williams, once failed to pay taxes. And he watched the Bush campaign run ads charging that crime was out of control in Texas and Governor Richards wasn't doing anything about it.

Bush's Achilles' heel in the 2000 race, Mr. McDonald says, is not his personal foibles or his business record. It's the first bill Bush ever signed, allowing Texans to carry concealed handguns. That, says McDonald, could come back to harm him in a year of schoolyard shootings and gun violence.

"If I ran the Gore campaign," he says "I'd run footage of school kids running out of school buildings, and have a voice-over saying, 'School violence is out of control. What's George Bush going to do about it? Nothing!" He pauses. "That would be pretty good."

As for Stanford, he has no plans of joining the fray against Bush this year, or at least none that he's willing to let on. He thinks the Democrats would be better off focusing their money on taking back the House and Senate, and taking back a few statewide races in Texas. And he thinks Bush is going to be an exceptionally hard man to beat.

"He's the frat-house president of America - people like him," says Stanford, who does most of his work over the Internet and in dusty libraries in the basements of county courthouses. "We had polls done [during the Richards-Bush race]. Whenever we tried to hit him on an issue that the public cared about, our numbers went down. It's impossible to hit the man."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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