They lurk, cameras at the ready, during every meeting of the Cabinet, three statewide candidates in their crosshairs. When congressional hopeful Al Lawson of Tallahassee gives a speech, they're usually poised for a boneheaded remark. Even long shot gubernatorial candidate Bud Chiles drew one recently as he hunted for elusive supporters in Ybor City.
They're campaign videographers, so-called trackers, assigned to monitor rivals, record what they say and, ideally, catch an idiotic quote. In the YouTube era, they are nearly as indispensable to candidates as breath mints and fundraising consultants.
"They seem to be everywhere I go — filming along with someone asking mean questions,'' chuckled Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott.
Rival campaigns have sent spies to monitor one another's events forever, but digital technology over the past decade has made it easier to capture — and capitalize on — gaffes or flip-flops. Never has the practice been so widespread and visible in Florida as this chaotic election year.
"The best trackers are the ones that blend into the background, the ones not seen and not heard and the only way you think about them is if and when the video shows up and captures the candidate in a YouTube moment,'' said Republican consultant Albert Martinez of Tallahassee.
Paid operatives aren't the only ones getting in on the trend. The Democratic National Committee has launched the "Accountability Project" encouraging grass roots activists to bring their camcorders and cell phone cameras to Republican events: "For too long, our politics has been poisoned with misinformation and negative attacks. The most powerful way to combat these shadowy tactics is to drag them into the light of public scrutiny,'' says the website, featuring clips of Marco Rubio and others.
The ultimate YouTube moment came at a 2006 campaign rally in Virginia when U.S. Sen. George Allen pointed out the tracker filming him for Democrat Jim Webb. Allen called him "macaca," a term that can refer to a monkey and sounded to some like a slur.
"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 out S.R. Sidarth, a 20-year-old of Indian descent. "Give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."
The footage helped kill not only Allen's re-election, but also his expected presidential candidacy in 2008.
Ethics in tracking
"People say we're spying on people, but there's a code of ethics,'' said Dan Martin, 23, who worked as a tracker for the Barack Obama campaign in Florida in 2008. "My job was to fit in with the crowd, just try to lay low, and be respectful."
Martin spent five months in 2008 attending most every Republican presidential event in central and north Florida, blending into the crowd, monitoring and recording whatever was said by John McCain, Sarah Palin or whoever else, and giving updates to the Obama headquarters in Tampa.
"I actually think (former state GOP Chairman) Jim Greer was starting to notice me toward the end. He'd pound his fist and stare at me,'' recalled Martin.
Martin was in Jacksonville on "Black Monday" in September 2008 when McCain declared "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" on the same day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.
"I reported that to headquarters, and it was amazing," he said. "Before I got back to the office they already had an ad on TV."
Martin said his admiration for Sen. McCain grew steadily throughout the summer as he heard more and more about his heroics as a prisoner of war. He also liked many of the Republican spectators he clapped along with ("But I wouldn't chant, drill, baby, drill, I tell you that much"), though after a Clearwater Palin rally, he sent the Secret Service audio of someone shouting "Kill him!" about Obama.
He blended in so well at a sparsely attended Election Day rally at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa that a campaign staffer tried to get Martin to come on stage with McCain.
"All we have is old people here. Can you come up on stage?"
Emotions on high
Not all videographer operatives aim to blend in. Last month, North Carolina Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge had to publicly apologize after he manhandled two videographers who asked about his support of the Obama agenda.
In Tallahassee recently, the re-election campaign of U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, filed a police report and breathlessly called media to report that Democratic rival Lawson "attacked" their 22-year-old tracker and took his camcorder.
The tracker showed up at Lawson's campaign headquarters filming as Lawson and campaign volunteers prepared to drive to a watermelon festival. Police brushed off the incident and Lawson bought a new camera for the Boyd campaign.
"George Allen was when tracking became mainstream. Now everybody's out there hoping for the George Allen moment,'' said Lawson campaign manager John Reid. "But more and more, it's no longer trying to catch somebody on the record saying something they shouldn't. It's now about, let's force an issue, provoke and catch you in an embarrassing moment."
Trackers tend to be entry-level campaign positions, and so far this election year, the Florida Democratic Party and the Bill McCollum gubernatorial campaign use them most consistently.
At every Cabinet meeting, a Republican and a Democratic tracker is present, trying to blend in with reporters in the audience. They start filming afterward when reporters fire questions at McCollum, Gov. Charlie Crist and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.
No one has caught a "macaca" moment, but the campaign season is just warming up. So are the cameras.
Times staff writer John Frank contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.