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Opposition Research Key Part Of Political Dark Arts

flickr/Sean MacEntee

Brace yourself, citizens.  September is the unofficial start of campaign season.  You are about to be spun by dueling poll numbers, attack ads and negative messages.   To help decipher it all, we're taking you behind the scenes this week to meet the practitioners of politics' dark arts.

We begin with Reporter Alex Keefe tracking down opposition researchers - the folks whose job it is to dig up dirt on politicians:

 I spotted him stalking along the outskirts of a press conference with Democratic Governor Pat Quinn one afternoon...

KEEFE: Can you tell me what your name is, at least?

QUINNOCHIO: Quinnochio.  

A living, breathing example of opposition research at work.

KEEFE: Do you follow him around a lot?

QUINNOCHIO: I can’t speak to that, sir.

KEEFE: Do you get paid?

QUINNOCHIO: I can’t speak to that, sir.

Quinnochio is actually an unnamed campaign staffer for the governor’s opponent - Republican Bruce Rauner.

He’s a hybrid caricature - part Governor Quinn, with his balding gray wig - part cartoon Pinocchio, with royal blue lederhosen and a long, fake nose.

Quinnochio’s job is to trail the REAL governor in public to accuse him of - you guessed it - LYING about various policies.

KEEFE: So what is the goal for you, today, to come out to this event. What are you trying to do?

QUINNOCIO: I can’t speak to that, sir.

Quinnochio is opposition research embodied.

It’s the job of opposition researchers to unearth the facts that back up these kind of attacks - all those embarrassing quotes or regrettable votes your political opponent won’t let you forget.

“Oppo researchers” - as they’re called - are often ex-political operatives, lawyers - even former journalists.

And if this all sounds like seamy, dumpster-diving, meet-me-in-the-parking-garage kinda work - think again.

Di RESTA: What I do is not very sexy. ... If you want the limelight, I would say that this career is not the one to choose.

Brett Di Resta is a Democratic opposition researcher based out of Washington, D.C. And he says he’s less a “ninja character assassin” - than he is a librarian.

 Instead of hunting down secret mistresses... ...Di Resta spends his days at a computer, poring over public records - court documents, property tax filings, campaign finance disclosures and thousands upon thousands of news articles.

Di RESTA: When you see an attack ad... and they say someone voted to raise taxes 21 times, someone has to figure out what those 21 times are, and that someone is me.

Di Resta says about half his job is actually researching the candidates he’s working for - looking for vulnerabilities to head off future attacks.

All of this information is then organized, prioritized, fact-checked, sourced and finally, condensed into an internal campaign document that usually never meets the public eye - a document oppo researchers simply call “The Book.”

KEEFE: So this is it? This is the dirt?...

PEARMAN: Yeah, those are all the votes...

John Pearman is guiding me through a hefty red binder, some 170-pages thick.

This is The Book - actually, one of several books - that he helped put together while working for Republican Jim Ryan’s gubernatorial campaign in 2002.

The target: Democrat Rod Blagojevich.

PEARMAN: I’ve done opposition research for 25 years. ... Maybe there’s one other individual that we’ve done research on that was as rich as this one, but this was - everywhere you looked, there was something.

Pearman says people called him all the time with Blagojevich dirt - even people who worked for Blagojevich.  The fish were jumping into the boat.

PEARMAN: One of the common threads that came out early in all of this stuff was this mob thing.

The “mob thing” was Blagojevich’s alleged ties to organized crime figures - ties Pearman thought could be devastating to Democrats.

So in the fall of 2002, with his candidate low on money and behind in the polls, he holed himself up in a warehouse near Midway Airport along with boxes upon boxes of court documents from federal mob cases - looking for some scrap of confirmation to convince news outlets to run the story.

PEARMAN: They put you at a little conference table by yourself, with a guard sitting there watching you. ... And I’m a pretty fast reader, but it still took me six days to get through all the court files for the Andriacchi street crew.

KEEFE: Six days of just reading thousands of pages?

PEARMAN: And not one mention of Blagojevich by name.

Desperate, Pearman actually tracked down one of the [alleged] mob figures - and went to confront the guy at his kid’s football practice, to ask him in person about Blagojevich.

It didn’t go well.

PEARMAN: ‘Get the expletive away from me. I better not see you again.’ I got nothin. I got nothing from him. ... Yeah, obviously we never got a second source on it and nobody ever did the story.

Pearman acknowledges he was going after a silver bullet - in an industry where small, repeated attacks against a candidate are usually more effective.

Opposition researchers say those silver bullets are rare - but many I talked to pointed to this one example that worked all too well.

 VIDEO:  State Senator Mike Taylor once ran a beauty salon and a haircare school...(fade under)

 This attack ad from the 2002 Montana U-S Senate Race features the Republican challenger - a guy named Mike Taylor - sporting a leisure suit, shirt unbuttoned, massaging lotion into another man’s cheekbones.

An oppo reseacher exhumed the video from these late night T-V ads Taylor ran for his cosmetics company in the 80s.

Democrats then found a soundtrack that could have come out from Behind the Green Door - and they ran with it.

VIDEO: Mike Taylor: Not the way we do business in Montana.

Critics nationwide pounced at the ad for suggesting Taylor - a married man - was gay. But it did work: Taylor dropped out of the race less than a week later.

GRAGERT: You don’t win races by just telling people what a wonderful person you are. You just don’t.

Dennis Gragert is a veteran Democratic opposition researcher based in Chicago.

And he says there are rules: attacks must be verifiably true, and they can’t be too personal or you could face a backlash, like with the hairdresser ad.

All in all, the opposition researchers I talked to say they sleep just fine at night, thank you -  because all those negative ads actually work - even if voters say they hate them.

Still, Gragert does betray a moment of empathy...

GRAGERT: And sometimes I think about, if that was me on the other end, would I like that? All right, that’s not for me to like, it is - it is reality. It’s not something where you say, well that shouldn’t be the case. That is the case.

As it should be, he says, in any peaceful republic - where political contests are settled not with revolutions - but with words.

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