WASHINGTON — Rep. Chris Carney was walking down a Capitol Hill street when suddenly — bam — an anonymous Republican with a video camera who'd been following him asked him a question that was intended to embarrass the Pennsylvania Democrat.
The interviewer asked first about a single provision in the massive economic stimulus bill, then asked if Carney was going to be "ready to vote tomorrow."
An irritated Carney answered: "Like I told you before, if I see the damn package, I'll have an answer."
A "macaca" moment meant to replayed on the Internet and possibly wound a vulnerable Democrat?
That's the goal. A video of former Virginia Republican Sen. George Allen's offhand racial slur of an Indian-American Democratic campaign volunteer helped lead to his defeat in 2006.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is sending out video "trackers" to ask provocative questions of Democratic members of Congress. The trackers, who are congressional committee staffers, were earlier reported by Congress Daily, a specialty publication distributed largely on Capitol Hill.
NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay told McClatchy that Democratic complaints were "whining," adding that "The modern-day world of campaign politics demands that we track our opponents' steps and missteps. We have nothing to hide when it comes to asking tough questions, but it appears that Democrats do when it comes to answering them."
The NRCC doesn't require its questioners to identify themselves as partisans on grounds that anyone has a right to approach a member of Congress and ask a question. It wouldn't say how many lawmakers have been questioned: A GOP statement said that, "Videos are posted on a case-by-case basis."
Republicans say they're simply trying to hold Democratic lawmakers accountable. Since the Internet became an important part of campaigns, it's not been unusual for candidates of any party to be tracked by their opponents.
"We've had trackers following us around before, but they were there to observe," said Andrew Stoddard, communications director for Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who recently was ambushed by a GOP interviewer.
"What they're doing now," Stoddard said, "takes things to a whole new level."
Carney, elected to his second term last year, represents a slice of heavily industrial, blue-collar northeastern Pennsylvania that's considered a prime Republican target in 2010. His spokesman, Vince Rongione, said the video hasn't generated any reaction.
Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., said that Carney shouldn't worry.
"These moments only matter if you say something outrageous. Allen needed suburban voters in Virginia, and the idea he was using racial slurs was significant," he said.
"Nobody understands more clearly than Republicans how much an unscripted moment can hurt you," said Stephen Farnsworth, the author of "Spinner in Chief," a study of how presidents sell their policies to the public.
In 2006, Allen seemed to be coasting to re-election and was prepping for a 2008 presidential bid. That momentum ended abruptly with comments he made while campaigning in Breaks, Va., near the Kentucky border.
"This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere," Allen said, pointing to S.R. Sidarth, a 20-year-old of Indian descent who was videotaping the event for Allen's Democratic opponent, James Webb.
Allen's backers cheered, and the senator urged them to "Let's give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."
Sidarth was born in Virginia.
Macaca in some cultures refers to a monkey and in some cases is considered a slur against African immigrants. Allen later apologized, but the incident haunted his campaign, and he lost to Webb.
Some experts doubt that Republicans will gain much political mileage from running these crudely-made video ambushes on YouTube; some suggested that the tactic could backfire if the party picks the wrong target.
Rep. Joseph Courtney, D-Conn., known as one of the more conscientious members of the House of Representatives, was one such GOP target, for example. When the interviewer asked Courtney if he'd read the stimulus bill, he answered quickly: "Yes I have, actually. It's good for Connecticut."
Ultimately, "What really matters is whether the stimulus package works," Madonna said.
The videos also give Democrats a chance to paint Republicans as desperate.
"We are far more concerned with what members are doing to get the economy back on track that using gotcha tactics to embarrass people," said Jennifer Crider, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"We don't see this as having much impact," she said.
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