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Video cameras playing journalists' role on campaign trail

2:41 PM ET, 11/22/2010
At a campaign stop in 2006, the former Senator (R-VA) was repeatedly referring to a young man of Indian descent-who was volunteering for Allen's rival Jim Webb-as "macaca." Webb won. Allen's videotaped "macaca moment" may have cost him the election.

Allen's "gaffe" was serious-the term is a racial slur.

Still, with video cameras rolling at events large and small, from the beginning of a campaign to the end, we should take candidates' gaffes with a grain of salt, because political campaigns shouldn't be won or lost with the single slip of a tongue.

But the ubiquitous video cameras on the campaign trail do more than catch gaffes.

They also show how politicians change their messages in front of different audiences.

That's particularly important, nowadays.

Fewer journalists are assigned to trail political candidates, which makes it harder for us to know how candidates are altering their stump speech and talking points as their campaigns progress.

This past electoral cycle in Colorado, GOP Senate candidate Ken Buck was caught on video early in his campaign making statements that arguably later led to his narrow loss to incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet.

But Buck's damaging video-taped statements weren't slips of the tongue. With some exceptions (his "high heels" comment) they weren't "macaca moments." They were simply policy positions that appealed to conservative voters in the GOP primary.
Republican primary voters were deciding between Buck and his Republican rival Jane Norton. Norton was viewed as more of an establishment Republican, while Buck was embraced by Tea Party groups.

With backing from the GOP's  far right wing, including social conservatives, Buck narrowly defeated Norton.

But after Buck won the Republican Party primary, videos of Buck's right-wing statements came back to haunt him.

They were used both by national groups and state campaigns to paint Buck as "too extreme" for Colorado.

In assessing his Senate bid after his loss, Buck told The Denver Post that Democratic trackers recorded video of him at 600 public appearances and took his words out of context.

A review of his statements, however, shows that videotapes of Buck mostly illuminated straight-forward policy positions that voters in the general election, as opposed to conservatives in the GOP primary, found disagreeable.

Many of the videos that hurt Buck weren't shot by his opponents at all, but by his supporters, eager to spread the word about Buck's ultra-right conservative views.

The statements that damaged Buck in these videos for the most part weren't  gaffes but policy statements, which may never have come to light had they not been recorded on the campaign trail.

Video clips showed Buck telling various conservative audiences that Social Security is a "horrible policy," the Veterans Administration and big chunks of the federal government should be privatized, and the Department of Education abolished. He also questioned the federal separation of church and state and the federal student loan program.

One clip aired repeatedly in TV ads showed Buck telling a Tea Party group during the primary: "I am pro-life, and I'll answer the next question. I do not believe in the exceptions of rape or incest."

The passion in his voice on the video contrasted with his statements later that he wasn't campaigning on social issues, like abortion.

So campaign-trail videos, at least in Colorado's U.S. Senate race, helped bring to light Buck's policy positions-and also illustrated his heart-felt dedication to them.

That's a role that journalists used to play in covering a campaign. They'd write about these kinds of policy shifts and nuances from start to finish. But with their ranks depleted, more of that role, especially in the early part of a campaign, is left to individuals, holding small video cameras near candidates in church basements or back-yard picnics.

I'd rather see professional journalists doing this. But at least we've got cameras on the candidates-even if some of them are operated by paid political operatives.

This Jason Salzman op-ed was distributed by the Other Words syndicate.

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