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High-Tech Gadgets, Gumption Make for New Era of Attacks

Counter-tactics: Democrats are employing geek squads, truth squads, cell phones and faxes to compete at the media game.


PHILADELPHIA — In the predawn hours Wednesday, six college-age techno-geeks hunched over video consoles temporarily installed in a gritty union hall. They burrowed through tapes of the previous night's Republican convention session like intelligence analysts with the latest film from a spy satellite.

Cutting and splicing against a 3 a.m. deadline, they "deconstructed" the GOP's carefully crafted image.

By sunrise, couriers delivered fresh videocassettes to the news media--cassettes in which sound bites of GOP orators were interspersed with a Democratic "truth squad" offering rebuttal. Where Latinos and African Americans appeared at the podium, for instance, the Democrats inserted camera shots panning the hall and a voice pointing out that delegates are overwhelmingly white.

Welcome to the 21st century, where political counterattacks move at the speed of light.

As recently as four years ago--when satellite uplinks, cell phones, laptops, pagers and other high-tech gadgets were not yet woven into the fabric of presidential campaigns--it might take 24 hours for one side to mount a full-scale counterattack.

Not now.

This year, with everyone wired to the teeth, hooks and jabs fly back and forth almost instantaneously.

In Philadelphia, Democrats have set up a command post in the local Sheet Metal Workers union hall. They have a satellite uplink, a small TV studio, and batteries of telephones, computers, Internet lines and fax machines.

A Stealth Mission for Fax Numbers

From a variety of sources, including what one Democratic operative called "friends in low places," the Democrats have assembled cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses for most of the thousands of reporters gathered here. They also have scored a handful of the precious tomato-red credentials that permit the bearer to pass by Secret Service inside the convention compound.

One Democratic operative patiently filtered through the scores of temporary offices copying down fax and phone numbers.

When a counterblow is ready, cell phones erupt all over the convention site as Democratic aides call reporters to tell them new material is available--often coupled with offers to plug the reporter into a conference-call interview with a party spokesman or friendly expert.

"The big difference now is technology," said Marty Kaplan, former speech writer for Vice President Walter F. Mondale and now an associate dean at USC's Annenberg School of Communication. "Rapid response has to be instantaneous."

When things really click, the counterpunch lands first.

"We are virtually guaranteed inclusion in a story if we are fast. But if we are ahead of the game with a response, especially by hours, it's like a slam-dunk," said Jenny Backus, press secretary for the Democratic National Committee. The contrary material blurs the favorable picture that the convention is carefully designed to produce.

For example, two hours before Sen. John McCain took the stage to praise his former opponent Tuesday night, Democrats in the union office were devouring an advance copy of his speech, which had landed in their e-mail boxes from sources they will not disclose.

An hour later, they were sending responses to hundreds of e-mail accounts and faxing copies to every media outlet at the convention site, replying to McCain's comments before he'd even opened his mouth.

"With all the technology out there these days, with everything going on, we have to be out in full force here this week," said Bob Mulholland, an advisor to the California Democratic Party who is among those skulking through the media tents this week.

'There Are No Rules in This Game'

Democrats hit especially hard on opening day, energized by a remark made that morning by Bush strategist Karl Rove. Rove had criticized the Democratic "attack ad" campaign and accused the opposition of "not playing by the rules."

The comment made DNC Chairman Joe Andrew giddy.

"Any time someone says you're not playing by the rules, well, that means you are most definitely hitting a nerve," Andrew said. "I'm here to tell Mr. Rove and anybody else who may not know: There are no rules in this game."

Not everything is high-tech. Some is just shoe leather.

Using their passes, Democratic spinmeisters strolled among the media work stations, dropping quotes and talking their way onto radio interviews.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) earlier this week hopped from one show to the next, while Mulholland, well-known for being the Democratic Party's one-man firing squad, mingled with reporters as his pager chirped and he carried on parallel interviews via the cell phone glued to his ear.

"I'm getting a headache," he said at one point. "This spy thing is hard work."

Republicans, for their part, have tried to shrug off the Democrats' tactics. "It certainly shows they're sweating over this one," said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer.

And what do the Republicans have in store when the tables are turned in Los Angeles?

"Oh, they'll be there for sure," Andrew said. "But they'll be arriving in limousines."


Times staff writer Megan Garvey contributed to this story.

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