WASHINGTON – Republican Rep. Anne Northup of Kentucky was caught in an uncomfortably close race a few campaigns back, until she plucked the fruits of months-old research that her campaign had compiled into her opponent’s record.

The resulting commercial showed Eleanor Jordan in an unflattering moment, standing on the floor of the Kentucky Legislature urging fellow lawmakers to wrap up their work. “I have a fundraiser at 6 o’clock and I want to get out of here,” Jordan said with an impatient glance at her wristwatch.

Jordan “lost her momentum after that,” Northup recalled recently – neither the first nor the last candidate to benefit from a political subspecialty known as opposition research.

“Votes, quotes and anecdotes,” Michael Gehrke, a veteran Democratic researcher, called his area of expertise. “At the end of the day, all you’re really finding is nuggets.”

“Silver bullets are frequently talked about but rarely found,” agreed Brian Jones, a Republican with long experience in political research. “Ultimately, what make the most effective hits are ‘did they pay their taxes, (or) did they vote for excessive spending.”‘

To some, opposition research is a tedious but important part of politics. To others, it’s a black art. Equally available to both parties, even senior Democrats concede Republicans have excelled in recent years at conducting and using the research.

By any description, the art of combing a politician’s past for fact or flaw has taken on a wider role in recent years.

Technology is part of the reason. Once, researchers had to look through musty newspaper archives. Now, the Internet and the proliferation of cable television make voluminous information and arresting images far more readily available.

An era of heightened partisanship is another.

Both parties maintain the senatorial equivalent of a campaign war room in the Capitol, constantly drawing on their research to put the other side in the worst light possible.

With the House narrowly divided between the parties, research plays a prominent role every two years in the few dozen races that are pivotal.

Republican Rep. Phil Crane of Illinois lost in 2004 after Democrats emphasized his habit of taking junkets at the expense of lobbyists. Two years earlier, Democrat George Cordova’s hopes of going to Congress from Arizona effectively ended when Republicans unearthed two tax liens.

“You need to know everything about your opponent’s voting record, policy record, everything he or she has ever said, done, even thought of,” says Stephanie Cutter, a consultant who worked on Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

Given the scrutiny they can expect, it’s wise for candidates to conduct opposition research on themselves.

“The ideal situation is to know before the other side your most vulnerable point,” said Terry Holt, a veteran of House campaigns as well as President Bush’s 2004 re-election effort.

Some candidates flinch at that. Josh Lahey, a Democrat, recalls one who didn’t want researchers stepping foot in his own state.

Senate campaigns often conduct the research themselves. Most House campaigns do not, and party committees generally limit their involvement to races that strategists believe could be pivotal in the national battle for control of Congress.

“We send someone into the district who would go to the library, check (online) or old clips of newspapers. They’d go to the county courthouse and look through tax records, property records, all available public documents, including criminal records,” said Carl Forti of the House Republican campaign committee.

In other cases, committees or candidates hire outside companies to do the job, saving money on travel costs.

Final reports can be voluminous, and strategy considerations dictate when and how the material is used.

“You’re thinking about how you might want to release the information so it’s going to have a maximum amount of impact,” Jones said. The options include mass mailings and television commercials, but in some cases, it’s preferable to “get the information into a newspaper. Then you have third party credibility.”

A Web site or blog are other options, on the theory that once information is on the Internet, it may gain wider circulation in the mainstream media.

Officials are reluctant to disclose what they’ve stockpiled for the 2006 campaign, although a preview was on display in Indiana recently after a sheriff’s office mistakenly released a suspected child molester wanted in Kentucky.

“Can you imagine a suspected child rapist being captured in Vanderburgh County, but then mistakenly released by Brad Ellsworth sheriff’s department?” began an ad hustled onto the air by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Ellsworth is challenging six-term GOP Rep. John Hostettler.

While the release of the accused man was well-known publicly, the NRCC’s next move stemmed from opposition research.

The party committee made sure a local newspaper, the Evansville Courier and Press, had material for a follow-up story. The article quoted an NRCC spokesman as saying Ellsworth had once endorsed a judge’s decision not to jail a participant in a work-release program who was later responsible for a triple murder-suicide.

Ellsworth responded with an ad touting his law enforcement credentials. And Jay Howser, his campaign manager, said the sheriff had not endorsed the judge’s decision, but had merely said he had acted within his authority.

But with one of their prime recruits under assault on law enforcement – his presumed political strength – the DCCC dusted off its own research. Hostettler “voted to cut funding to crack down on meth labs and against putting thousands of new police on the streets, claiming he’s a fiscal conservative. But when it comes to his own pocketbooks he’s a big spending liberal, voting just weeks ago to raise his own pay again,” said the party’s ad.

In contrast to the early campaign events in Indiana, the most prized research is sometimes held until the final stages of a campaign.

Northup’s camp was tipped to Jordan’s remarks in late winter or early spring of 2000 and a young researcher was dispatched to watch hundreds of hours of videotapes. But the ad itself wasn’t made and aired until later in the fall, when Jordan drew close to Northup.

Then there was the silver bullet that claimed Republican Mike Taylor, who briefly posed a threat to Montana Sen. Max Baucus in 2002.

Democrats knew he had once owned hair care schools in Colorado. That led to a newspaper ad that mentioned he had once appeared in an infomercial on the noon news in Denver in the 1980s. That, in turn, led to the basement of a private home where a former television station employee had old videotapes.

For Democrats, the hunt was worth the effort – the party’s autumn television commercial showed Taylor wearing an open-front shirt and gold chains, massaging a man’s face.

Staggered, Taylor briefly dropped out of the race, accusing the Democrats of saying that “anybody in the beauty and hair fashion industry is homosexual.”

But in politics, as the old expression goes, if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

“That was a silver bullet,” Baucus recalls.

AP-ES-07-20-06 1341EDT

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