If he slips, his shadow will know

Campaigns keep a close watch for rivals’ missteps

Dakota Hebert, a tracker for Republican Charles D. Baker, squeezed between reporters to record comments by Governor Deval Patrick at a press conference yesterday. Dakota Hebert, a tracker for Republican Charles D. Baker, squeezed between reporters to record comments by Governor Deval Patrick at a press conference yesterday. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff)
By David Filipov
Globe Staff / October 28, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — They are spies in the open, agents in the enemy camp, unsung workers of political campaigns who have the ability to take down a candidacy with the touch of a record button.

They are the trackers. Armed with hand-held, high-definition video cameras, they haunt each public event of the opposing candidate, recording every word, movement, and gesture. They are there in case a candidate makes a gaffe similar to the racial slur Republican George F. Allen tossed at a young man of Indian descent that helped sink Allen’s 2006 reelection campaign for the US Senate.

With less than a week until Election Day, none of the candidates in this race for Massachusetts governor has made such a grave slip. But in an age of round-the-clock news coverage and video-sharing websites, the trackers following Governor Deval Patrick, Republican Charles D. Baker, and Independent Timothy P. Cahill can instantly upload awkward moments and incautious sound-bites.

“Nothing’s more powerful than using a candidate’s own words against him,’’ said Dan Cence, a Democratic political consultant. “I can shoot a video on the phone, edit, and post it to YouTube before the candidate is off the podium.’’

Last week, the Baker cam paign carried off a striking example of how this works. In the campaign, Baker has blamed the Patrick administration for a budget deficit that the Republican estimates will exceed $2 billion next year. When a Globe reporter asked Patrick for his own estimate, the governor declined, saying he would reveal the number “in December or January.’’

A recent college graduate named Dakota Hebert was tracking the event for Baker’s campaign and caught the exchange on video. Minutes later, the snippet went up on the Baker campaign’s YouTube site under the headline “Governor Patrick’s Budget Fantasyland.’’ The Baker campaign also quickly dispatched a statement that slammed Patrick for “putting off tough choices on the budget.’’

The idea of keeping track of what the other campaign says is not new. But once upon a time, broadcasting a find to a wider audience often required persuading news media to use it or spending lots of money on a campaign ad. The advent of wireless Internet access and the proliferation of cheap recorders that produce high-quality video have changed all that.

“The technology allows people to get the information that’s happening quickly and up on the Internet,’’ said Rob Eno, publisher of the conservative blog Red Mass Group. “It allows the quick dissemination of information from smaller events that the press might not cover.’’

A sparsely attended Baker campaign event in Worcester in May offered Patrick’s tracker a chance to make a quick hit. The Patrick videographer made a point of doing a 360-degree pan to show the size of the crowd. The video went up on a website the Patrick campaign uses to show Baker’s awkward moments and missteps, “Charlie Baker’s World,’’ accompanied by a picture of President Obama addressing a huge crowd.

“The Baker campaign likes to inflate the size of the crowd at events,’’ said Sydney Asbury, Patrick’s campaign manager. “It’s really about being able to get the record straight.’’

The Patrick campaign has sought to use footage of Baker’s statements about the Big Dig to highlight its assertion that the Republican has skirted the truth about his role in the troubled finances of the massive project.

Patrick came under fire in a debate Monday night, when Baker said that the governor had suggested imposing a progressive state income tax. When Patrick denied that, Baker cited a video his tracker had taken of an Oct. 6 event when Patrick said, “Personally, I’d like to see a progressive income tax and not a flat income tax.’’ (Since then, Patrick has said it is something he favors but would not propose in a second term.)

Often the tracker’s effort yields nothing that goes straight to the Web. Last Sunday, when Baker was joined by Governor Christopher J. Christie of New Jersey in Melrose, Patrick campaign worker Eric Haynes recorded the whole thing. There did not appear to be any gaffes. Nor were there any empty seats in Memorial Hall. Nor was there any apparent animosity between Haynes and Baker’s staff. Spokesman Rick Gorka chatted amicably with Haynes and chuckled at the Baker-Tisei sticker on the videographer’s camera case

“It’s a weird business,’’ Gorka said. In September, Gorka told the Globe that Haynes joined Baker staffers for a bite at Bada Bing Pizza & Wings in Methuen after a campaign event.

“He’s a good guy,’’ Gorka said at the time. “He has a job to do. We have a job to do, and that’s that.’’

For his work for the campaign, Haynes, 27, receives $446.25 a month, according to filings with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.

Sometimes, the tracker’s ability to get close access rankles the rival camp. Juli Sweeney, Cahill’s press secretary, said she has had to ask Hebert to leave events reserved for accredited media. Sweeney said the Cahill campaign has not used trackers. The campaign for Green-Rainbow Party candidate Jill Stein did not respond to a request for comment.

Hebert’s skills at getting close to the candidate were on display yesterday as Patrick addressed a tightly packed scrum of reporters at the office of the pharmaceutical company Novartis AG in Cambridge. As the governor answered questions about his record in expanding the state’s life sciences industry, Hebert squeezed himself into the narrow, crooked gap between a cameraman and a television reporter, eyes locked on the candidate, arm extended, camera glowing in his hand. “He has a reach longer than George Foreman,’’ a Patrick aide commented.

The tracker and the tracked both said they had developed a decent relationship.

“He’s a nice guy,’’ the governor said yesterday. “You know, I tease him sometimes when we’re out and call him out. If I make a point about Charlie, I say, ‘Ask him! Dakota’s here.’ And he giggles. We’ve had lunch together.’’

But has he grown accustomed to having his rival’s recorder 6 inches from his face every time he is in public? “No, I don’t think you ever get used to it,’’ Patrick said. “But it’s a part of it.’’

Michael Levenson and Noah Bierman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Filipov can be reached at