In YouTube clips, politicians reveal unscripted side

Monday, October 09, 2006
By Amy Schatz, The Wall Street Journal

HELENA, Mont. -- One after another, embarrassing videos of U.S. senator for Montana, Conrad Burns, have been posted in recent months on by somebody identified only as "Arrowhead77." There was the one of the 71-year-old Republican lawmaker nodding off at a farm hearing. Another where he warned constituents about people who "drive taxicabs in the daytime and kill at night." A third showing Mr. Burns joking about the immigration status of the "nice little Guatemalan man" who works at his Virginia house.

The tapes are hampering Mr. Burns's bid to win a fourth term in November. They're getting widespread attention in the local press, feeding his reputation as gaffe-prone, and helping his opponent for the seat -- Democratic state senator Jon Tester -- run even, if not a bit ahead, in recent polls.

That's exactly the point. "Arrowhead77" is a 23-year-old staffer on Mr. Tester's campaign named Andy Tweeten, who posts the videos from his iBook notebook, having mixed them with music and added titles. Mr. Tweeten gets his raw footage from a fellow Tester aide, 24-year-old Kevin O'Brien. Since April, Mr. O'Brien has put 16,000 miles on his gold Nissan Sentra stalking Montana's folksy senior senator with a Sony camcorder in hopes of capturing embarrassing moments on tape.

It's an increasingly used tactic in the 2006 campaign, the first election in the age of easily accessible Internet video.

Campaigns have sent staffers to spy on each other for years. But in the YouTube era, young operatives like Mr. O'Brien are enjoying unprecedented importance and, in some cases, celebrity. They post their embarrassing snippets on the Web, where some of the clips can become instant sensations, spread by bloggers and political junkies.

As control of both houses of Congress hangs in the balance, any misstep by a candidate can mean more than just personal defeat. Democrats need to pick up 15 House seats and six Senate seats to take control of those bodies. Democrats believe they can take Montana this year.

So far, the most famous gotcha moment belongs to S.R. Sidarth, an Indian-American student, whose constant tailing of Virginia Republican George Allen on behalf of Democratic challenger Jim Webb infuriated the senator. That prompted Mr. Allen's now-infamous remarks to a crowd of supporters, about Mr. Sidarth: "Let's give a welcome to macaca here ... Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia." "Macaca" is a racial slur in some countries, and the comment added fuel to critics' claims that Mr. Allen is racially insensitive, helping to erode his once-formidable lead.

In Pennsylvania, a cable-TV channel captured embattled Republican Sen. Rick Santorum on tape arguing with a woman during a parade after she berated him for allowing state taxpayers to fund home-schooling of his children in Virginia. The exchange ended up on YouTube. In Missouri, Republican Sen. Jim Talent complained he was taken out of context after the Missouri Democratic Party posted on YouTube a five-second video that appeared to show him contradicting his own opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Conrad Burns seemed a particularly inviting target for a YouTube-driven campaign tactic. "Sen. Burns has hurt himself by a series of goofs or poor choice of words and a lack of discretion over the years," says James Lopach, chairman of the University of Montana's political science department. Jason Klindt, a Burns spokesman, says: "I don't think Montanans are voting based on a YouTube ad. I don't think it has a big impact."

The Tester camp's media team first started taking the videos so they could release them to the local media in hopes of generating stories about Mr. Burns. The idea of jazzing them up with music and posting them on YouTube came from "someone born in the 1980s," says Tester spokesman Matt McKenna, although he can't remember which staffer thought of it first.

Their most famous piece -- "Conrad Burns's Naptime," a one-minute video of Mr. Burns nodding off during a farm hearing in Montana this summer -- has been seen more than 75,000 times on YouTube, five times as often as any official campaign commercial posted by either Burns or Tester on the site. The Tester campaign considers a posting successful if it is mentioned in Montana newspapers, on radio or on television.

The nap video was picked up by newspapers in Great Falls and Missoula and also was seen on CNBC's "Hardball" and on CNN. The video of Mr. Burns's joking comments about Hugo, the "nice little Guatemalan man," was picked up by several national media outlets, including the Associated Press in Washington. That story was carried in several Montana papers, including the Great Falls Tribune.

Not all of the videos attract attention. On Wednesday, Mr. O'Brien taped the Senator telling a group in Havre, Mont., that more funding for body armor for troops in Iraq would "just bust the budget." The campaign quickly put out a press release accusing Mr. Burns of risking the troops' lives, but it wasn't picked up by the local media.

The Burns campaign has been slower to embrace the technology, although it has now posted a dozen of its own campaign ads on YouTube. The Burns campaign hasn't posted any of the video it has shot of Mr. Tester, other than a brief clip used in a TV commercial, but it's not ruling it out.

The hub of the Tester camp's multimedia operations is the basement of an office building in downtown Helena. There, a Dell PC is hooked up to a high-speed Internet connection, a videocassette recorder and a TV set. A tidy pile of videotapes sits in a dented gray bookcase. With a lot of territory to cover, the Tester campaign leaves three cameras with supporters across the state, in places including Missoula and Billings, in case Mr. O'Brien can't catch up easily with Mr. Burns. But the centerpiece of their YouTube strategy is Mr. O'Brien.

He joined the Tester campaign in April for a salary of $2,750 per month, knowing he was essentially signing up for an extended road trip. A Chicago native, Mr. O'Brien went to work for the Democratic Party in 2004 after graduating from Illinois State University with a degree in political science. From there, he went to work at Wal-Mart Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit opposed to the retail giant's business and labor practices.

"You never know where the stump speech is going to go," Mr. O'Brien says. He operates under a strict set of campaign guidelines. He never records the Senator's private conversations. He considers fund-raisers off-limits and he generally tries to stick with any remarks Mr. Burns makes to crowds.

"It's great when voters have more access to their public officials," says Mr. Tester, 50, an organic farmer whose family has taken over managing the farm while he campaigns.

The senator's staffers have made his job harder recently, as they've stopped posting announcements of coming events on their campaign Web site. But the Burns campaign has never actively tried to keep Mr. O'Brien out of an event or hinder his ability to shoot. And unlike his colleague from Virginia, Mr. Burns not only tolerates his young shadow's presence at most public events, they've developed a cordial relationship.

Riding on horseback at a recent rainy homecoming parade Saturday in Bozeman, Mr. Burns spotted the familiar Mr. O'Brien, sporting jeans and a sweatshirt, protecting a palm-size Sony camcorder under a wide black umbrella. "How ya doin', Kevin?" he hollered out genially.

"Fine, Senator, how are you? It's a little wet," yelled Mr. O'Brien, his video camera clutched in one hand. Mr. Burns smiled. "Good ... good," he responded, before turning away.

"He's a nice kid. He's just doing his job," says Mr. Burns after the parade, as he dried out in the back seat of an extended-cab pickup truck on the way to a tailgate party. Such continuous scrutiny comes with the territory he says, before joking that his campaign has been supporting its young foe all summer.

"We have to feed him, 'cause the Democrats ain't paying him nothing," Mr. Burns says with a chuckle.